Panthers v Storm
Penrith’s start to the 2011 season has shown plenty of ugly, a lot of bad, and finally last week, some good.
But while there was a heap to like about their comprehensive win over Canberra, it would seem the Panthers, despite their home-ground advantage, will need to produce their very best if they're to topple high-flying Melbourne.
Against Canterbury and Parramatta, the Storm played with an intensity, skill and speed unmatched by other teams so far. With the exception of last week's 36-10 thumping of the Raiders, Penrith have been embarrassed at home and Matt Elliott's men need to fight hard to ensure the Storm don't cut loose like Newcastle and Cronulla did in Rounds 1 and 3 respectively.
While it would appear they're up against it, Penrith can take a major confidence boost from how North Queensland ambushed Melbourne three weeks ago. The Storm came into the game flat after two wins, and the Cowboys were able to take advantage.
A Penrith side that turns up with the right attitude can make the Storm pay if they're experiencing another ‘down’ week. The intensity of the NRL means that even the professional Storm are at risk of a dip every couple of weeks, and the Panthers can help onset an off night for their opposition if they come out showing they mean business.
Watch Out Panthers: Fullback Billy Slater has proven he's the fittest man in the game, and his ability to be constantly around the ball is uncanny. Slater leads his Storm teammates, and most of the game, in nearly every attacking category. He's made 70 runs, producing seven line-breaks, 29 tackle-breaks and three tries. And while this is simply run of the mill for the Queensland and Test no.1, his three line-break assists, four try assists and seven offloads are evidence of how Slater has evolved into a scarily dangerous second five-eighth for his team in 2011.
The other scary thing for the Panthers is Billy can't be shut down. If he's not scoring the try himself he's likely to lay it on for someone else.
Danger Sign: If Penrith's forwards don't set the tone early, the Storm will dictate terms. Melbourne have left their grinding style behind and are now playing to their attacking strengths. If they’re allowed to play fast footy, momentum will get too much for the Panthers and the scoreboard will start to tick over.
Watch Out Storm: Melbourne haven't been completely outmuscled by an opposition forward pack this year, but the Penrith pack can test them. The front row rotation of big Petero Civoniceva, Tim Grant, Sam McKendry and Matt Bell are bigger and potentially more dominant than the likes of Jesse Bromwich, Bryan Norrie, Jaiman Lowe and Adam Woolnough.
Civoniceva and Grant are both averaging more than 100 metres per game and should keep the Panthers rolling forward. Luke Lewis' absence is major; however Trent Waterhouse has the size and Nigel Plum the punch in defence to knock around Melbourne's forwards. Doing this won't guarantee Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk are kept quiet, but it will help.
Danger Sign: Although the Storm's attack is red hot, they shouldn't underestimate their Penrith opposites. Winger David Simmons is fresh from a hat-trick, while fullback Michael Gordon can bust a line open as good as anyone. The Cowboys were able to exploit the Storm's edge defence and Penrith have the weapons to ask them some more questions out wide.
Interchange Timana Tahu can still play a role – he has scored 10 tries in 13 matches against the Storm, the fourth most by any player.
Plays To Watch: Melbourne have recorded four dummy-half line-breaks this season, which is more than any other team. Smith will poke around all afternoon, while Slater will also pick his moments to get in for a scoot.
Five-eighth Gareth Widdop will have a crack on the left edge close to the line and if he sees an opening, his footwork is lethal.
For Penrith, watch halfback Luke Walsh's short kicking game and inside passes – with Gordon sure to be hanging off his shoulder all day.
Where It Will Be Won: For Penrith to win this match, they'll need to be disciplined and take every opportunity available to them. So far this year they've been unable to do this, and the Panthers have conceded more penalties (43) than any other team in the competition. Piggy-backing the Storm up the field won't end well for the Panthers, with field position needing to be their priority.
A worrying sign for Penrith is superstar Jennings' poor try-scoring form this season. Jennings (497) is currently experiencing the longest drought of his NRL career, and for such a big game, the Panthers need their biggest name to fire.
Luke Walsh has four try assists for the year and if he can create, the Panthers can score an upset.
But… it goes without saying that defence is key for the mountain men. This year they've made more ineffective attempts at tackle (119) than any other side, and the percentage of their tackling is a league-low 84.
The History: Played 21; Panthers 6, Storm 15. Penrith haven't defeated Melbourne since 2005, with the Storm winning the past seven games straight. The teams are even at Centrebet Stadium (4-4).
Conclusion: Penrith need to put a stamp on this match and prove they can reclaim the consistent form that saw them finish second after 26 rounds last year.
Another unconvincing loss here and self-doubt will be hard for them to get rid of.
Melbourne are ruthless, and as far as Craig Bellamy is concerned, this Round 6 clash means as much as any other. The Storm will take a heavy hit during the State of Origin period and they can't afford to drop games they should win like this one. After their loss to the Cowboys in Townsville, Bellamy will be keen to make sure losing on the road doesn't become a problem.
Match Officials: Referees Ben Cummins & Chris James; Sideline Officials David Abood & Henry Peranara; Video Referee: Russell Smith.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.
* Stats: NRL Stats