Storm v Panthers
AAMI Park
Saturday 5.30pm

Three losses from their past four games have placed the Panthers’ premiership campaign on life support, with the Storm ready to pull the plug on their season with a 10th consecutive win at home that would edge them closer to a redemptive minor premiership.

Missing a key playmaker in Gareth Widdop, Melbourne showed patience and guts in overturning an 18-point deficit to emerge victorious over the Eels last Monday, sending another strong message that they have the depth and talent to go all the way in 2011.

Meanwhile bad luck and a drop in intensity saw the Panthers let the Cowboys off the hook in Townsville, surrendering a 12-6 halftime lead to fall further back from the semi-finals zone. They were in the hunt until losing Luke Lewis to concussion on the stroke of halftime, before sinking under the weight of four Cowboys’ tries in the second half.

They now sit ninth on the ladder, two wins adrift of the Knights and Wests Tigers. They need to win all five of their remaining games to have any chance of scraping into the eight. (They play the Wests Tigers next week, so a win against the Storm coupled with a Dragons’ win over the Tigers would make things super interesting heading into Round 23.)

Just the one cosmetic change to the Storm 17 this week, with Ryan Hinchcliffe set to play lock and Kevin Proctor shifting to second row. Maurice Blair has been named at five-eighth again for the injured Gareth Widdop (elbow) although the Englishman is considered an outside chance of taking the field.

Meanwhile the Panthers have retained the starting 13 that fell to the Cowboys but tinkered with their interchange; Dayne Weston has been dropped, replaced by Nafe Seluini, while Masada Iosefa is back from a month on the sidelines (hand fracture) in jersey No. 18.

Luke Lewis is fit to play after being knocked out diving for a grubber kick in the Cowboys’ in-goal shortly before halftime last week.

It’s a milestone week for Bryan Norrie who plays his 100th NRL game.

And talk about having the wood over an opponent – Luke Lewis and Trent Waterhouse are the only Panthers who’ve tasted success over the Storm.

Watch Out Storm: Melbourne need to be alert defending their try line in front of their goalposts, given the Panthers have recorded an NRL-high 19 tries underneath and adjacent to their oppositions’ sticks to date. Mostly they’ve come from kicks – the Panthers have scored 15 times from the boot. But offloads close to the line have worked wonders too – they’ve scored 12 times after a player has been able to get away a sneaky assist, the most by any side in 2011.

The Panthers actually lead the way for promoting second-phase play in general, averaging 14.8 offloads a game.

The Storm will miss the creativity of Gareth Widdop, who contributed three try assists in their win over the Panthers in Round 6.

Danger Sign: The Storm need to tackle in numbers or be effective with their one-on-one attempts otherwise danger men Trent Waterhouse (48 – second most in the comp), Adrian Purtell (27), Petero Civoniceva (26) and Luke Lewis (23) can inflict damage.

Watch Out Panthers: A Billy Slater try shortly after halftime saw the Panthers surrender their lead in their Round 6 clash and the Storm No.1 looms again as the man most likely to cause problems – especially given Widdop’s absence.

Slater’s tireless support play make him both the most threatening and valuable player in the game. He has made a staggering 144 supports to date – that’s 46 hovering runs more than next best Wade McKinnon. And he’s committed to chasing absolutely anything down – he’s made 36 good chases so far, ranking fourth.

Slater made 203 metres and seven tackle-breaks against the Panthers last time out.

Also, Maurice Blair will be looking forward to tackling his former team-mates. Playing No.6 this week Blair has taken to Melbourne “by storm”, averaging career highs in runs (8.5 per game), metres (82) and line-breaks (five). He’s also contributing his most ever tackles (21 a game). Blair contributed a crucial try assist and an offload in their win over the Eels last week.

Danger Sign: Watch for Slater to chime into the backline from a Storm scrum win, creating an overlap. He did this last week and Justin O’Neill scored from 75 metres out. The Panthers need to watch his every movement or they’ll get burned.

Plays To Watch: Cooper Cronk’s busy organisation; Dane Nielsen’s straight running on the left fringe; Cameron Smith’s direction from dummy-half; Lachlan Coote’s kick returns; Luke Walsh’s select passes; Luke Lewis’ off-the-cuff attack; Petero Civoniceva’s charges.

Where It Will Be Won: Maximising territory and minimising errors. The Panthers fare better than most teams when comparing territory stats. While the Storm make the second-most metres each game (1393) Penrith aren’t too far behind, grinding out 1363 metres each 80 minutes. Significantly, they concede even fewer metres than the Storm, giving up 1292 metres a match (fourth fewest) to Melbourne’s 1300.

Civoniceva (135 metres average), Lachlan Coote (133), David Simmons (130) and Tim Grant (116) will all be called on for their usual input. And winger Ryan Walker slotted in well last week, making 144 metres in his debut.

But gaining the territorial advantage won’t mean a thing if the Panthers don’t improve their error rate. Their 12.7 a game are the fourth most by any side and a clanger last week, when a David Simmons pass was grassed by Dayne Weston, cost them six points and crucial momentum.

Meanwhile the Storm average 10.5 errors per game, the second fewest in the premiership. 

The History: Played 22; Storm 16, Panthers 6. The Storm have won the past eight games between the sides, including a 25-10 victory at Centrebet Stadium in Round 6. The Storm have won the only clash played at AAMI Park.

Conclusion: This is it for the Panthers. They must win or 2011 is done and dusted.

They are a chance if they can keep the contest close heading to halftime; from there though they’ll need to pull away or else the home side’s professionalism will leave them for dead.

Unfortunately Panthers fans we think this week will be remembered as the one when your season was tamed.

The Storm by six points.  

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Adam Gee; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm. 

* Stats: NRL Stats