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Wests Tigers v Penrith Panthers
Campbelltown Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

The battle of the big cats is upon us – and just in time for Panthers fans, as their team finds a little form. Since the Wests Tigers joined as an entity in 2000 the Panthers have loved nothing more than taking on the joint venture, winning 74 per cent of the matches between the clubs. It’s a stat which no doubt scares Wests Tigers’ fans who know their side needs to find some rhythm and inject consistency into their season.

Last week the Tigers were blown away by South Sydney in a match they were favoured to win. They have now lost three of their past four games and have slipped back to eighth on the ladder with a 4-5 record, only in the finals zone by points differential. As one of the teams many expected to be setting the pace, Tim Sheens’ boys have failed to live up to the hype. But with the representative season now upon us they have a huge advantage due to the fact they are without representation. Their side won’t be disrupted this weekend like many others and they have in fact named the same unit from last week for this clash (Bryce Gibbs does come in as an extra man on the bench). The match will be Liam Fulton’s 100th NRL game.

For the Panthers, last week’s timely win over the Broncos was a huge boost. They had been poor for the majority of the year but with the Phil Gould announcement they seemed to lift a gear – it’s amazing what playing for your future can do! Unfortunately for the visitors, just as they hit some form they are also hit by injuries… and Origin.

Skipper Petero Civoniceva is in the Queensland camp, which brings Tim Grant in to start at prop. Fullback Michael Gordon and centre Timana Tahu both suffered serious injuries and are gone for the season. The returning Lachlan Coote will wear the No.1, while Adrian Purtell shifts from wing to centre and Sandor Earl comes onto the wing. Nafe Seluini is also out, with Masada Iosefa taking his bench spot. Matthew Bell is currently the 18th man.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: Luke Lewis returned from injury for the Panthers last week and it’s no surprise they lifted with his presence. The back-rower is all class and could easily have walked back into the New South Wales side. His skill and power on the right edge is something the Tigers must be wary of – and don’t be surprised if he also bobs up on the left.

Lewis’ great footwork to leave Peter Wallace grabbing at air early in the match last week was sublime and then his powerful running saw him crash through two others to score. He averages five tackle-breaks a match this year in his limited time and will be out to prove he is ready for Ricky Stuart should he need him later in the Origin series.

Danger Sign: When he slots into a second-receiver position, as another five-eighth, Lewis can really put a dent in the opposition. Defenders don’t know whether he will run or pass or kick, as he can do it all. And, if he chooses to run, it generally takes at least two men to bring him down. If either slips off, the offload comes and away goes a team-mate into space.

Watch Out Panthers: Surely Robbie Farah is going to be primed for a huge performance. He has again been overlooked for Origin duty, despite being the catalyst for a mini-fightback against Souths last week. Farah should be pumped and ready to play the Panthers, as they have shown real weakness to clever dummy-half play so far this year. In fact, they have leaked more tries from dummy-half than any other side in the NRL (with seven notched against them). Farah can spot a weakness around the markers better than most and will certainly exploit the visitors if they get lazy.

Danger Sign: If Farah lifts the ball and takes a step or two before passing early in the match, you he’s doing so to get a feel for the markers and their reaction times. If he senses weakness, he’ll be gone before they blink.

Plays To Watch: Brad Tighe with white line fever – he needs just two tries to get 50 for his career; Lachlan Coote chasing Luke Walsh kicks; Chris Heighington looking to cash in off a Benji Marshall short ball.

Where It Will Be Won: Discipline and desire to defend. While it would be easy to dismiss a focus on defence in this clash, the fact is it will be the side that decides to knuckle down and grind it out who will gain the edge.

Both sides can really get on a roll if they are allowed to – but they are also prone to ‘frustration’ errors when denied good field position. The key here will be the first 20 minutes. Last week the Wests Tigers were poor early and the Panthers were great – it set the tones for their results. The side that decides they are going to respect the ball and build pressure early will come out on top.

The History: Played 19; Wests Tigers 5, Panthers 14. The Wests Tigers snapped a five-game losing streak against the Panthers with a 43-18 win at this very ground last season. It was the only time they have beaten the Panthers at Campbelltown, with the visitors winning all three previous matches. If the Wests Tigers can buck the trend and win again it will be the first time in their history they have won five straight games at Campbelltown.

Conclusion: For some reason the Panthers lift to play the Wests Tigers, so tipping this match is tough. On form from last week the Panthers look specials but Penrith haven’t put two good games together this year.

The Wests Tigers are a Jekyll-and-Hyde team – at times they seem disinterested and others they look more than capable of taking home the premiership. Which team will turn up?

We think the home side will lift and get back on track – but don’t put your house on it.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Brett Suttor; Touch Judges – Daniel Eastwood & Jason Walsh; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

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