Panthers v Bulldogs
Centrebet Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

This could be the game that both camps look back on as the defining point in their seasons – one for all the right reasons and the other with a heavy head of regret.

It’s a crucial clash as we head towards the start of the ‘Glory Bound’ rounds of the competition, pitting the 10th-placed Panthers (16 competition points) against the seventh-placed Bulldogs (18 competition points). Both sides know the teams sandwiched between them on the ladder – the Wests Tigers and the Warriors – each gain a cushy two points this week banking their second bye of the season. Consequently, a Panthers loss and a Souths win over the Sharks would see the mountain men slump to 11th – while a ’Dogs loss could see them fall to 11th too!

On the positive side of the equation, should the Knights lose to the Dragons and the Bulldogs win the blue-and-whites would cement sixth place on remain some chance of forcing their way into the all-important top four.

Incredibly, the best-case scenario for the Panthers after this round is a rocket up the ranks to sixth – but they’d need to defeat the Bulldogs by 17 points for that to occur.

It all adds up to a thrilling showdown.

Just days after the departure of coach Matt Elliott and the appointment of caretaker Steve Georgallis for the remainder of 2011 the Panthers sprung to life against the Cowboys, winning their third game from their past four outings.

Ditto the Bulldogs looked the goods in downing the Wests Tigers in Campbelltown, recording just their second victory from their past seven games.

Both sides lose some weaponry to Origin this week; the Bulldogs will have to make do without the razor-sharp niggle of hooker Michael Ennis, while the Panthers will be without the engine room penetration of captain Petero Civoniceva and the X-factor of ball-playing lock Luke Lewis and centre Michael Jennings (if he doesn’t play for NSW he’ll be sidelined with injury).

Coach Georgallis, who will slot back into 2IC mode for newly appointed mentor Ivan Cleary from next year, has named Tim Grant to start at prop for Civoniceva, with Trent Waterhouse handed the captaincy. Nathan Smith shifts from second row to lock to cover for Luke Lewis, with Nigel Plum selected to pack down along Waterhouse.

Serafu Fatiaki, Ryan Walker and Harry Seijka are the new faces on an extended bench.

Meanwhile Kevin Moore has shifted Dene Halatau from lock to hooker to cover for Ennis with David Stagg coming off the bench to wear the No.13. Ben Roberts takes Stagg’s place on the pine.

Moore would have issued his charges the challenge of restricting the Panthers to single points this week – it’s something they haven’t managed to do in successive weeks in almost four years.

Meanwhile the Panthers will be buoyed by their recent record against the Bulldogs – they’ve won eight of the past 11 games between the sides – and four of them by 20 or more points.

Frank Pritchard plays his first game against his former Panthers team-mates.

Watch Out Panthers: Having been snubbed by NSW Origin coach Ricky Stuart Bulldogs prop Aiden Tolman is set to take out his frustrations on the depleted Panthers’ pack. Tolman is the benchmark prop in the NRL in 2011, leading the stats categories for average and total runs (219) and average metres (139.2) with the third-most tackles per game (36.1). He’s also providing the ’Dogs with huge game time – his 59 minutes is the second most behind Titan Luke Bailey.  Along with Greg Eastwood (146 metres last week) they’ll ensure the ’Dogs don’t hang around inside their half too long.

Former Panther Frank Pritchard will be primed for a massive performance. Used sparingly against the Tigers last week he contributed 10 hit-ups, three offloads and a line bust in just 30 minutes of game time. He’ll be intent on adding to his modest three line-breaks and three line-beak assists for the year.

Danger Sign: Adrian Purtell put in a horror handling performance in his 100th NRL game on the right wing for the Panthers last week, his bumbling conceding two tries. Expect the ’Dogs to target him in the air; the Panthers have conceded 14 tries off kicks (third most in the NRL) and have defused just 63 per cent of cross-field bombs.

Watch Out Bulldogs: The Panthers continue to be the kings of promoting second-phase play in 2011, averaging an NRL-high 13.3 a game. That spells trouble for the Bulldogs, who are the fourth-worst team at stopping offloads, conceding 12.6 a game.

Trent Waterhouse is the major danger man, his 44 offloads the second most by any player. Last week he kept the Cowboys guessing all afternoon, contributing a game-high six promotions. Plus he has 33 tackle-breaks for the year – the fifth most by any second-rower.

While the Bulldogs are middle of the pack when it comes to errors, averaging 12 a game to date, they continue to place themselves under intense pressure in their own half, committing the most errors by any side in this region (99 so far).

The Panthers’ back three of Lachlan Coote, David Simmons and Adrian Purtell will be out to make big inroads into Bulldogs territory – the blue-and-whites concede the most ground per game, giving up an average 1451 metres to oppositions each week. Last week against the Cowboys the Panthers’ back three tallied a combined 412 metres alone!

Danger Sign: If halfback Luke Walsh sends it wide early you’ll know the Panthers are going to back their speed men to get the better of the at-times slow Bulldogs defence.

Plays To Watch: Ben Barba and Jamal Idris looking to bust the defence out wide – their 71 and 69 tackle-breaks respectively are the fifth and sixth most in the comp; Josh Morris out to impress in his 100th NRL game (ditto Nathan Smith for the Panthers); Sam Kasiano and Frank Pritchard working in tandem to send supports away after busting the fringe open; Tolman charging relentlessly to show Blues’ coach Ricky Stuart what he could have had; Luke Walsh’s flat passes for supports at the line; Lachlan Coote’s support play.

Where It Will Be Won: Clearly the battle will be decided down the left edge of the field. The Bulldogs’ right-side defence has leaked 25 tries down their right fringe and edge, the second most behind the Sharks’ 26. The region where big Jamal Idris defends has seen 14 tries scored, second most behind the Titans’ 15. Meanwhile, the Panthers have conceded 20 tries down their right edge, compared to 18 on their right.

Also, both sides will need to be careful defending their line in front of their goal posts – the Panthers have scored an NRL-high 14 tries under the sticks, while the Bulldogs rank third with 12 scored.

The History: Played 80; Bulldogs 46, Panthers 31, drawn 3. The Panthers hold a dominant recent record, winning six of the past eight including the past two. The Bulldogs have won 21 of 39 games at Centrebet Stadium, with one draw. But their sole victory at the venue over the past four years was a 28-26 win in 2009.

Conclusion: Origin deprives the home side of more venom than the visitors, so it’s a tough game to get a handle on.

One thing the Panthers can’t afford is a let-up in their discipline; it’s been a problem all year, even at home, with the side conceding 104 penalties to date. That’s eight more than the next worst Melbourne and a whopping 24 more than the ’Dogs.

The Panthers haven’t got the best of records without their inspirational leader Civoniceva – they’ve won only 10 of 23 games without him when missing through Origin or injury over the past three years. That could be enough to provide the ’Dogs with the lift they need to push further up the eight and finally put to bed their worrying form of the past two months. The Bullogs by eight points.

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Jason Walsh; Video Ref – Bernard Sutton.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats