Penrith Panthers v Canberra Raiders
All right Panthers fans – it’s time to get nostalgic. Forget about the scrappy stuff your team has dished up on your previous two homes games against the Knights and the Sharks and instead remember 20 years ago when a group of mountain men conquered the Canberra dynasty and secured your club’s first ever premiership.
Heritage Round gives us a chance to reflect on some magnificent glory days. It serves as a timely reminder of what previous players have done in the jersey, for the jersey. And perhaps it will provide a spur for the current Panthers…
First though, for the atmosphere to be just right it falls on the fans to get out and support the team. Plus Panthers fans, this is the side that beat you in the finals last season… get out there and call for revenge!
This really is a crunch game. Both teams are at 1-3, the Raiders in 13th and the Panthers stone motherless last in 16th. Another loss will have either team chasing their tails early and while it’s not impossible, stringing runs of wins together in this evenly balanced competition is no easy feat.
The home side have been hit by injury in the lead-up, with Lachlan Coote and Luke Lewis out. Thankfully, Michael Gordon can shift to fullback, a position he dominated in late last year. Sandor Earl comes onto the wing.
Also, Luke Walsh is welcomed back at halfback, allowing Kevin Kingston to shift back to hooker; Masada Iosefa moves back to the bench.
Sarafu Fatiaki replaces Lewis at lock while Dayne Weston has been added to a five-man bench.
The Raiders have lost a few big names themselves, with Josh Dugan and Dane Tilse ruled out. Blake Ferguson moves from the wing to fullback, meaning Reece Robinson comes into the side on the flank.
Tom Learoyd-Lahrs will start at prop for Tilse, while Shaun Fensom is due to start at lock with Josh Miller reverting to the bench. David Milne, James Stuart and Danny Galea have been added to an extended bench.
This will be the 400th game the Raiders have played since they last won a premiership (205 wins) while Panther Petero Civoniceva is poised to join Steve Mortimer, Ian Schubert and Steve Walters as the 30th-most experienced players of all time.
Watch Out Panthers: The Raiders, just like last season, love attacking down the right side of the field. They have Bronson Harrison and Joel Thompson lurking on the fringes and have had Blake Ferguson out wide. With Ferguson at fullback they lose a little panache on the edge but will still hunt the Panthers’ left-side defenders often.
Nine of the Raiders’ tries this year have come on the right side of the field compared to just four on the left and another four up the middle.
The Panthers have conceded more tries than anyone and they have been split evenly across the park with six on the left, six on the right and six up the middle.
Danger Sign: Bronson Harrison is the spark for the Raiders’ right side. He’ll either take the ball and commit defenders before offloading, or he’ll lure them away from centre Joel Thompson while acting as a decoy. Thompson is near unstoppable one on one close to the line.
Watch Out Raiders: Michael Gordon is back at fullback, a position he was spectacular in during the back half of 2010. Thanks mainly to his time at fullback (although his form on the wing also warranted Origin selection), Gordon averaged 124 metres last year. He had 11 line-breaks and 16 tries plus 105 tackle-breaks. So far this season he has an average of 128 metres gained, has one line-break and two tries plus 19 tackle-breaks.
Danger Sign: Look out for Gordon’s support play up the middle of the ruck. It is reminiscent of Nathan Blacklock at times, a man who made try-scoring an art form by supporting the right ball runner at the right time.
Plays To Watch: The constant rain of high kicks; Michael Jennings on the quick counter-attack; the Raiders’ tall forwards running lines at the goal posts; Jarrod Croker’s deceptive speed inside the Panthers’ 20-metre zone; Timana Tahu getting physical when injected off the bench.
Where It Will Be Won: The halfbacks. Luke Walsh returns from injury for the Panthers and needs to take his side by the scruff of the neck, just like he did last season. Matt Orford has been lucky not to face the axe after three straight losses, particularly after youngster Sam Williams tore apart the Sharks in Round 1.
The halfback who decides to take control of his team and his own form will be heading towards a ‘w’ and a chance to sing the victory song.
Walsh needs to get his attacking kicks working again and also needs to get his engine room rolling forward faster. He could also inspire the defence by getting physical and putting some hits on the Green Machine.
Orford needs to find some confidence from somewhere – and quickly. He has been woefully off the pace so far and is taking a back seat. He was at his best when he ran the show and perhaps needs to just go back to instinct and take the reins. He has been boxed onto one side of the field (left) but perhaps the odd break from the norm would be helpful. He has reportedly spent time with Andrew Johns this week – let’s see if it has helped.
The History: Played 58; Panthers 28, Raiders 29, drawn 1. The Raiders have one win more than the Panthers in the head-to-head stakes, thanks to their 24-22 upset in the finals last season. They have won five of the past eight; including the past two encounters; however, the Panthers won three on the trot prior to the past two wins.
At Centrebet Stadium, the scene of last year’s finals upset, the home side still leads with 15 wins, 10 losses and a draw.
Conclusion: If the Panthers’ teams from the previous two home games turn up then it will be a Raiders avalanche – but if they come to play, the home side can certainly get things back on track here. The Raiders are struggling for confidence, and they are the definition of a confidence team, so if Penrith can bustle Orford into another poor game they will be in the box seat.
But if they defend without vigour the Raiders will cash the competition points.
Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Brett Suttor; Touch Judges – David Abood & Jason Walsh; Video Ref – Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.