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Knights v Panthers
Ausgrid Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm

Having started the season disastrously and seeing coach Matthew Elliott told his services would no longer be required beyond 2011, Penrith take the long bus ride north this Saturday knowing that a win over Newcastle could elevate them into the top eight for the first time since last year’s finals series.

It’s been a remarkable turnaround for a Panthers side that looked utterly clueless just three months ago. Having started the season with just two wins from their first eight games, the mountain men have won three from four between their two bye weeks to move up to 10th spot on the NRL ladder and sit just two competition points behind current top-eight sides Wests Tigers, the Warriors and Bulldogs.

But they face a daunting task if they are to keep the momentum going against a Newcastle outfit that is famously difficult to beat on home soil and sits one place above them on the table.

The Panthers have been battered by injury this season and they head into Saturday night’s clash minus strike weapons Michael Jennings and Michael Gordon, while forwards Luke Lewis and Petero Civoniceva are backing up from Origin. Civoniceva has been named 18th man (Tim Grant named to start) and his presence will depend on how he pulls up from his latest representative foray.

They must also overcome a horrible record against the Knights, having won just 31.6 per cent of their encounters since the National Rugby League was formed in 1998. Only Brisbane has caused the Panthers more problems in that time.

Newcastle, meanwhile, will be looking to find some much-needed consistency after dropping four of their past five games. Having dug deep to beat Parramatta in atrocious conditions in their last home game three weeks ago, they suffered a heart-breaking 17-16 golden-point loss to Wests Tigers at Leichhardt last start – the third time in 2011 that they’ve lost a game by two points or less.

However, they can take heart from their opening round performance against Penrith in which they scored a thumping 42-8 win at CUA Stadium despite losing both Kurt Gidley and Neville Costigan to injury.

The mid-season release of Beau Henry to the Gold Coast and Jarrod Mullen’s pectoral injury means that captain Kurt Gidley (backing up from Origin) stays in the halves this week with youngster Tyrone Roberts partnering him at five-eighth.

Panthers coach Elliott has named Joseph Paulo in the centres for the first time in 2011, replacing Jennings who is sidelined with an ankle injury, while wily dummy-half Nafe Seluini comes onto the bench.

Watch Out Knights: It is no secret that the Panthers heavily favour their left-edge attack and Newcastle’s right-side defence will need to be wide awake to the threat posed on that side of the field.

Penrith have scored 19 tries on their left this season compared to just nine on the right and 11 in centre-field and although Jennings’ absence is telling he has only contributed one of those 19 tries – so the threat remains.

More importantly, Newcastle’s right-side defence has proved to be their Achilles’ heel in 2011, having conceded 16 down that corridor in their 13 games to date.

Fullback Lachlan Coote stands as an ever-present danger with the ball in hand, having averaged 117 metres and scoring a team-high five tries since returning from injury.

Danger Sign: Penrith would be well-advised to send plenty of attack in the direction of Newcastle’s State of Origin winger Akuila Uate. As thrilling as he can be with the ball in hand, Uate has struggled defensively in 2011 with just a 66.1 per cent efficiency rate in defence. From 59 tackle attempts, Uate has missed 14 and made six ineffective tackles.

Watch Out Panthers: The Panthers must watch for two primary problem areas in their defensive line against the Knights. Firstly, they have struggled to wrap up the ball carrier in 2011 – having conceded an NRL-high 175 offloads this season. That opens up plenty of opportunities for Newcastle’s primary offload exponents Daniel Tolar (13), Uate (10) and Richie Fa’aoso (nine).

Second, the second-phase play this creates has proven a huge problem for the Panthers this season, who have conceded 59 line-breaks so far. Only Canberra, the Warriors and Wests Tigers have conceded more.

Conversely, while Newcastle have struggled to turn opportunities into points, they boast 58 line-breaks this season which places them fourth in the NRL.

The Knights should be looking to offload the football as much as possible against the Panthers.

Danger Sign: Newcastle should head to the air as much as possible when they near Penrith’s red-zone. The Panthers have defused just 68 per cent of kicks this season and are particularly vulnerable to the cross-field and mid-field bomb. They have defused just 12 of 21 cross-field bombs and three of eight mid-field bombs.

Penrith must also improve their discipline if they are to make a run to the finals, having conceded a coach-killing 90 penalties in 2011 – more than any other side in the NRL.

Plays To Watch: Kurt Gidley running to the line and turning the ball inside to one of his hard-running back-rowers; the Gidley bomb – Newcastle scored four tries from kicks against the Panthers in Round 1; the double second-man play to the left with Gidley choosing between Junior Sa’u out wide or a short ball to a wide-running back-rower; Lachlan Coote’s support play through the middle; Luke Walsh’s short-kicking game; Kevin Kingston’s quick dummy-half bursts.

Where It Will Be Won: Attacking potency is the key. There is little between these sides both on the NRL ladder and in the major statistical categories so much will depend upon who is most effective with the ball in hand.

This has already proven to be a problem for the Knights so far this season – their 58 line-breaks places them amongst the most lethal side in the NRL in open play yet they have crossed the tryline just 38 times (11th).

The absence of Mullen merely exacerbates the issue, with Gidley having struggled to find his best form since moving to the halves earlier in the season. He has produced just five try assists and four line-break assists in 2011.

Throw in yet another new halves combination this week and it’s hard to see the Knights notching a cricket score.

However, what they’ve lacked in attack they’ve more than made up for defensively and it will take some imagination from the Panthers’ attack to break down the wall. The Knights have conceded just 40 tries so far this season and Penrith haven’t exactly set the world on fire with their attack either – scoring just one more try than this week’s opponents.

If either side can crack their attacking code on Saturday night they will go a long way towards taking the two competition points.

The History: Played 34; Knights 18, Panthers 13, drawn 3. These two sides are three wins apiece from their past six clashes. Penrith actually won both games last season on their way to the finals but Newcastle gained some revenge with a 42-8 thrashing in Round 1 this year.

Conclusion: This is a clash between two of the NRL’s most inconsistent sides which, to put it bluntly, means anything could happen. However, while both sides are currently battling some injury problems, surely it is Newcastle that has the greatest concerns at the moment with halfback Mullen sidelined and youngster Tyrone Roberts thrust into the No.6 jersey in his absence.

Penrith, on the other hand, are missing some strike power in Jennings and Gordon but they are starting to find some stability in their key positions with Coote back in form at fullback and Travis Burns and Luke Walsh now settled as the club’s scrum-base pairing.

It will be interesting to see how the Origin factor impacts upon these sides – both having two players backing up from State of Origin II. The Panthers have named Luke Lewis in their starting line-up but have Civoniceva only tentatively pencilled in on an extended bench, while Newcastle will be hoping both Gidley and Uate are fit to take their places.

The home ground advantage gives the Knights some added incentive but this remains one of those games that you wouldn’t want to bet the house on.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & David Munro; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats