Roosters v Panthers
Sydney Football Stadium
Sunday 2pm

Who’d have thought six weeks ago that this would loom as a danger game in the Panthers’ campaign for a spot in the 2011 finals? A two-point loss to the Wests Tigers in Round 11 seemed almost the final nail in their premiership coffin, but since then (and during a turbulent period when they jettisoned the coach, appointed a caretaker and announced a new mentor for 2012) they’ve won four of five to claim eighth place on the ladder.

Over the next fortnight they meet the Roosters and Eels – both almost bankable competition points. They’ll need to be, given their home run includes tough opponents including the Sea Eagles, Dragons, Storm and Cowboys.

The danger for Penrith this week lies in how the Roosters will react to their embarrassing seven-tries-to-two loss to the Raiders last Monday night. It was the Roosters’ fourth defeat from their past five and their 11th overall, leaving them rooted to the bottom of the ladder alongside the equally hapless Titans.

Admittedly they were without Origin players Anthony Minichiello, Mitchell Pearce and Nate Myles, who they will get back for this game (fitness permitting), but they were still sadly off the pace.

Coach Brian Smith has called on 33 players so far – the most by any player and two more than the next most deployed by Newcastle. The NRL average is 28; clearly a lack of continuity has contributed to their decline. With their season gone it’s likely Smith will continue to experiment and give lesser-experienced player some more time in first grade. How that affects their ability to impact other teams, or their ability to distance themselves from the wooden spoon, remains to be seen.

However, they have a stronger look about them this week. With Mitchell Pearce’s return Todd Carney moves back to five-eighth, which pushes Braith Anasta into the second row and Brad Takairangi onto the bench. Frank-Paul Nuuausala returns after a one-game suspension; he starts alongside Anasta which bumps Tom Symonds to the pine. Tinarau Arona and Johnathon Ford are the faces missing from last week.

Should he back up Mitchell Pearce will play his 100th NRL game.

Meanwhile Steve Georgallis has sprung a major surprise and opted to rest Origin stars Petero Civoniceva and Luke Lewis, preferring instead to name an unchanged line-up to the one that dominated the Bulldogs last week.

(Mind you, a lot could change between now and kick-off, so stay tuned to NRL.com for further updates.)

Watch Out Roosters: Brian Smith can lay the blame at a change in the referees’ interpretations of the ruck area all he likes but that can’t wholly account for the Roosters’ spectacular fall from grace in 2011.

Last year the Roosters ranked second for line-breaks with an average 5.2 a game; this year they’re down at 13th making just 3.3. Their tackle-breaks are down from 38 (ranked fourth) to 32 (12th) and they’ve plummeted from being the fourth best at promoting second-phase play to 11th.

All of the above, plus limited structures, have seen them spiral from the third ranking for both tries and points scored (4.1 and 23.3) to dead last in each category (2.4 and 13.5).

The winning margins in the past four games between these sides have totalled a whopping 106 points – unless the Roosters can catch some lightning in a bottle this weekend it could be them on the receiving end of a hiding.

The tricolours need to be alert to Panthers’ halfback Luke Walsh’s varied kicking game which is reaping plenty of points for the mountain men; Walsh has 16 try assists for the year (ranked second behind Johnathan Thurston) and contributed three in last week’s win over the Bulldogs.

Back-rower and stand-in captain Trent Waterhouse has made 46 offloads to rank second in the category.

Danger Sign: Once the Panthers get to 14 points on the scoreboard chances are the game is safe for them.

Watch Out Panthers: When the Roosters bumped the Panthers out of last year’s semi-finals race it was Mitchell Pearce who did the damage, contributing three try assists and scoring himself in their 34-12 win at the SFS. Penrith is his favourite opponent – he’s made more try assists (eight) against them in his 99 games to date than any other club. 

The Roosters need more from centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall and will be hoping he isn’t still feeling his knee strain. SKD had an uncharacteristically quiet game against the Raiders last week, failing to make a tackle-break or a line-break and contributing just 82 metres. He missed five tackles, too.

Last year the Kiwi was one of the most devastating runners in the NRL, ranking second overall for tackle-breaks and fourth for line-breaks. If he recaptures a shard of that form he can help shatter the Panthers.

Danger Sign: The right-hand side of the field remains the Roosters’ best area for scoring points; they’ve crossed for 16 tries compared to 11 on the left. Slim pickings both ways, but that’s certainly their strongest area – especially if Kenny-Dowall looks to take on the line from close range.

Plays To Watch: Lachlan Coote charging the ball back on kick-returns – last year he ranked No.1 in the NRL and last week totalled 87 metres and a massive 215 overall; the Panthers’ props Tim Grant and Sam McKendry grinding out a solid platform up front (they’ve tallied an average 109 and 98 metres respectively – and last week bench prop Matthew Bell chimed in with a whopping 106 metres in just 26 minutes); Luke Walsh’s cross-field bombs for the Roosters’ wingers who have defused just 38 per cent of kicks directed their way; Anthony Minichiello trying to add spark chiming in left and right; Todd Carney waiting for the Panthers’ forwards to tire and then having a run.

Where It Will Be Won: Attitude. At the moment it’s a one-way street: the Panthers have it and the Roosters don’t. The Panthers are playing for caretaker Steve Georgallis, hoping they can do him proud and earn him a role on the coaching roster next year. They’re playing to impress Phil Gould and Ivan Cleary. They’re playing for each other.

Meanwhile the Roosters have complete lack of commitment. And it’s not just in attack – some of their defensive efforts of late have been truly woeful, including their inability to stop Jarrod Croker last week when a Raiders’ raid broke down near their line.

But the NRL can be a fickle arena; teams can turn it on from one week to the next, depending on their motivation. Playing for their careers between now and Round 26 could motivate some of the Roosters.

The History: Played 76; Roosters 47, Panthers 28, drawn 1. The Roosters have won five of the past eight games between the sides, including bumping the Panthers from last year’s finals series. (Not since 1998 have the Panthers defeated an opponent in their next meeting having been bundled out of the finals by them the previous year.) The Roosters hold an 8-6 venue at the venue.

Conclusion: Having put in some hard yards recently it’s tough to see the Panthers take their foot off the accelerator here. They’ll miss a lot without captain Civoniceva and Lewis but they were strong without the pair last week and Georgallis is probably thinking long-term.

Hopefully the Panthers can shed their tags as the NRL’s ‘night owls’ – they’ve managed just one win from their past six daytime matches, making it a meagre 11 wins from their past 33.

Still, a Roosters win would be a major surprise – and to the majority of tipsters, a considerable annoyance. Panthers by eight points.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Jason Walsh; Video Ref – Bernard Sutton.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats