Panthers v Eels
Centrebet Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Oh dear. The Panthers squandered a golden opportunity to put a gap between them and the bunch of finals wannabes lingering around the periphery of the top eight last week when they fell 34-26 to the lowly Roosters.

The Panthers’ lack of intensity was evident throughout as they let the tricolours ride roughshod over them. Consequently the Panthers are left clinging to eighth position, the best of four struggling sides on 18 competition points. 

Here they host the Eels in a western Sydney Rivalry Round showdown that will either end Parramatta’s chances of playing semi-finals footy or leave the Panthers with a massive battle to progress past Round 26. A home-side loss would mean they would need to win seven of their final eight games to cement a spot in the finals.

The Eels showed rare flair and commitment in downing the Wests Tigers 22-6 at home last week. They were ignited into action by the switch of Jarryd Hayne to five-eighth after the late withdrawal of No.7 Jeff Robson, which pushed Casey Maguire into halfback. The move wasn’t exactly revolutionary – Hayne played the first four games of the 2009 season in the No.6 for the Eels although on those occasions he didn’t exactly set the world on fire.

Eels coach Stephen Kearney has kept everyone guessing this week, returning Hayne to fullback on his team sheet with Maguire and Robson in the halves. But whether that’s how things pan out at kick-off is anyone’s guess.

Luke Burt returns to the wing at Etu Uaisele’s expense, with Ben Smith again named in the centre and Justin Horo at lock – although the pair switched prior to kick-off last week.

Manase Manuokafoa is the new face on the bench.

In some good news for the Panthers, strike centre Michael Jennings returns after being off the scene with an ankle injury since Round 13. And offloading back-rower Trent Waterhouse has been given the all clear after leaving the field with a knee ligament strain 15 minutes into the clash with the Roosters. 

Watch Out Panthers: Have the Eels turned the corner and are they back to their tackle-busting best? Prior to last week Parramatta ranked dead last in the power game, breaking just 26 tackles per game on average. But against the Wests Tigers they carved a season-high 47 tackle-breaks. Fullback Luke Burt led the way with seven, with Fuifui Moimoi, Justin Horo and Rene Maitua each making six. That’s a huge concern for the Panthers, who missed a whopping 40 tackles against the Roosters last weekend.

The Panthers have limited all-comers to the second fewest metres per game in 2011, but last week they conceded 1379 to the Roosters – way up on their season average of 1265. Compounding the danger is the fact the Eels churned out 1484 metres against the Wests Tigers last week; the Tigers had been averaging 1320 conceded all year.

If the Eels maintain their momentum from last week the Panthers face a real battle to stem the blue-and-golds’ territory flow.

Nathan Hindmarsh could prove an unlikely threat – he has scored three tries in his past four games at Centrebet Stadium, winning on three occasions.

Danger Sign: Last week with the No.6 on his back, Jarryd Hayne didn’t crowd his team-mates when he rushed in to get his hands on the ball at first receiver inside the opposition 20-metre zone. Hayne has always been the go-to man for the Eels but in the past his involvement has sometimes come at the cost of team structure. But last week when Hayne took on the line the Eels’ backline retained its structure, allowing team-mates to fulfil their roles. One player less to cramp the attack proved telling against the Tigers. Hayne has 11 try assists and 16 line-break assists for the year but those numbers should soar over the remaining two months of the competition. It wouldn’t surprise us if Hayne again played in the No.6 here. At least at times.

Watch Out Eels: Parramatta’s kickers need to focus on positioning their clearances away from the Panthers’ back three. To date Jeff Robson and Jarryd Hayne have the third-lowest accuracy off the boot, kicking to space just 50 per cent of the time. 

Luke Walsh had an uncharacteristically quiet game last week and despite his side scoring four tries he failed to add an assist. Walsh has 16 try assists for the year (second most in the comp), six of which have come off the boot. But that ratio is way down on last year when he managed more than 75 per cent of try assists from kicks.

Panthers wingers David Simmons and Adrian Purtell are the intercept kings of the NRL – each has made three intercepts to date. And Luke Lewis has made two. Jarryd Hayne will need to be careful when throwing no-look, cut-out passes to the flanks or else the flashy attacking ploy could backfire.

If Hayne does play in the No.6 it would rob them of some counter-attack from the back. Luke Burt is a fine player but whereas Hayne averages the third most kick-return metres a game (70), Burt averages just half that distance.

For the Panthers, it’s taken former Eel Kevin Kingston just two years to become the fourth-most prolific points-scoring hooker in Penrith’s history. Kingston has scored nine tries in just 41 games. Also, he leads the league for dummy-half line-breaks (three) – and since he left Parramatta the Eels have recorded their fewest breaks from the ruck (four). He’ll be keen to make inroads here.

Danger Sign: If Walsh runs to the line on the right edge you can bet he’s looking for gaps in the Eels’ brittle left-edge defence which has conceded 27 tries so far, the most by any team. 

Plays To Watch: Lachlan Coote’s kick returns (averages 60 metres a game); Luke Lewis’s offloads (five last week); the Panthers’ backs taking a load off the forwards’ shoulders by carving out some territory – only Coote made triple figure in metres while six Panthers forwards topped to century; Kevin Kingston having a go from dummy-half; Hayne dictating regardless of what number he has on his back; Fuifui Moimoi taking it to the Panthers; Justin Horo creating havoc on the left fringe; and Nathan Hindmarsh’s decoy runs (74, second most) and defence – since entering first grade in 1998 Hindy has averaged 36 tackles a game, which gives him the seventh-best defensive record of all time. 

Where It Will Be Won: Errors and discipline. There’s every reason to suspect this will be an open game of footy which means the side that makes their passes stick will gain a huge advantage.

To date the Panthers have made 210 errors to Parramatta’s 198; not too much difference there. But the Panthers have forced all opponents into a combined 220 mistakes to date – the third most racked up against any side all year. Meanwhile Parramatta’s opponents have made only 179 errors – the fewest in the NRL. On face value this suggests the Panthers are significantly better at getting up in the face of their opponents and limiting their decision-making time.

This is also borne out in the penalty counts. The Panthers have conceded the most penalties to date (119) while the Eels are among the competition’s ‘angels’, giving away just 75 (third fewest).

Whichever side balances enthusiasm with discipline will prevail.  

The History: Played 82; Eels 51, Panthers 30, drawn 1. The honours are even four games apiece although the Panthers hold bragging rights following their 20-6 win at Parramatta Stadium in Round 2. The Eels have a good record at Centrebet Stadium, winning 21 of the 40 games there plus one draw.

Conclusion: Heading into last week you would have suggested the Panthers were just about the best bet of the round. And with Benji Marshall back the Wests Tigers were solid favourites to take down the Eels. It just goes to show how much of a factor commitment and momentum are week to week.

Every game is must-win for the Eels from here, so it’s unlikely their attitude will be lacking. Meanwhile caretaker coach Steve Georgallis will have impressed the importance of shutting down Hayne and not letting him spark his team-mates, like he did last week. If they can frustrate Hayne, regardless of what position he takes, the prize is theirs for the taking.

We’ll tip the Panthers to bounce back at home… but not with any great deal of confidence.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm (viewer’s choice), delayed 9.20pm.

•    Stats: NRL Stats