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Panthers v Wests Tigers
Centrebet Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Panther pride goes on the line this week as the mountain men face a surging Wests Tigers unit desperate to push as high as they can into the top eight to avoid the possibility of a first-week, lowest-ranked-losers exit.

The calculator hasn’t totally given up on the Panthers… although it would take a mathematical miracle to see them advance past the scheduled rounds. Last week’s comprehensive 26-6 loss to the Storm completed a hat-trick of defeats that look to have nailed their premiership campaign to the wall. They sit in 10th place on the ladder, three wins adrift of the Warriors, Knights and Tigers who are clustered on 26 competition points.

The Tigers are the lowest-ranked of that trio (on points differential) and, with the Warriors and Knights clashing on Saturday, a win against the Panthers would guarantee they climb one place higher.

They were brilliant against the Dragons in a high-intensity battle last week, swamping the Red V with three second-half tries and remaining patient to the death, only sealing the 16-14 win when Beau Ryan crossed in the 75th minute from a Benji Marshall-inspired long-range raid.

Injuries to Lachlan Coote and Luke Lewis have forced Panthers’ caretaker coach Steve Georgallis into making a significant reshuffle. Centre Michael Jennings switches to fullback, with David Simmons moving to the wing for Ryan Walker. Ex-Souths’ recruit Junior Vaivai slots into the centres for Jennings, while rookie Harry Seijka assumes the pivot role for Lewis. Nafe Seluini is slated to start at hooker with Kevin Kingston benched.

A boost to the Panthers’ psyche is that they enjoy a better record over the Tigers than any other opponent, winning 14 from 20 games.

Meanwhile the Tigers’ only change sees Mitch Brown named in the centres for Chris Lawrence, whose hamstring strain is expected to sideline him until the semi-finals.

The Wests Tigers have now won four in a row and their timely return to devastating form will no doubt have all semi-finalists more than a little nervous heading into the big games.

It’s a milestone week for Benji Marshall and Todd Payten who will each run out for their 150th games for the joint venture.

Watch Out Panthers: Marshall has regained the form that won him the prestigious Golden Boot award as best player in the world last year. When Benji ups his involvement there’s not a more dangerous threat in rugby league, as he proved last week when he ran 122 metres, scored a crucial try and set up the match-winner with a lovely cut-out pass to Chris Lawrence.

Marshall made three valuable offloads too, keeping the plays going to further tire the Dragons’ defenders. A single try assist this week would see him join injured Cowboy Johnathan Thurston for most try assists with 21. He also ranks second to Thurston for line-break assists, with 20 in the bank.

The Panthers need to find a better attitude in defence as their missed tackles continue to hurt. To date they’ve tallied the sixth most in the NRL and last week fell off 40 attacking players. That’s a major worry this week given the Tigers rank third for tackle-breaks, coincidentally averaging 40 a game.

Danger Sign: Robbie Farah, Robert Lui and Benji Marshall can create indecision with a variety of attacking kicks when close to the Panthers’ try line. Penrith have conceded 21 four-pointers to kicks, the second most by any side. Look for Farah to stab a grubber into the in-goal looking for a positive result or a valuable repeat set. Grubber kicks are their weapon of choice – they’ve tallied 109 to date, 32 more than the second most deployed by Manly.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: Petero Civoniceva won’t be holding anything back in his final four games for the ‘chocolate soldiers’. Big Petero will be a little annoyed at his missed tackle on Ryan Hinchcliffe that gifted the Storm their opening try last week. He has been a pillar for the Panthers each week, ranking third among all props with 131.2 metres, with 28 tackle busts, 26 offloads and 22 tackles in an average 50 minutes game time.

The Tigers need to focus on wrapping up the ball carrier given they are coming up against the side that generates the most second-phase play in the competition. The Panthers average 14.6 offloads each game, while the Tigers are effective with their tackles just 85 per cent of the time, the sixth lowest rate in the league. The Tigers need to be careful about committing too many troops in defence – they make the third-fewest one-on-one tackles but it might pay to up the ante this week, allowing trailing defenders to hover off the play looking for sneaky late passes.

Key Panthers to watch for offloads include Trent Waterhouse (50, third most by any player), Adrian Purtell (27), Civoniceva (26) and Sam McKendry (16).

Winger David Simmons and new fullback Michael Jennings loom as running threats; Simmons is in career-best form, averaging 16 dashes a game for a 133-metre territorial gain. And centre Brad Tighe will be trying extra hard to cross the stripe – it would take him to 50 career tries. 

Danger Sign: Expect Luke Walsh to target the area left of the Wests Tigers’ goalposts when they get in close range. The Tigers have conceded more tries in that area of the field (19) than any other. Waterhouse will be dangerous here too – look for in inside flick offload.

Plays To Watch: Lachlan Coote’s kick-returns; Luke Walsh sending his big boppers hurtling at Robert Lui; Michael Jennings looking to beat his man on the outside on kick returns; Petero Civoniceva cranking out huge metres (we’ll tip in the vicinity of 145);  Benji Marshall gunning for a hat-trick of man-of-the-match awards; Beau Ryan’s astute positioning as a support; back-rowers Gareth Ellis and Liam Fulton running great angles on the fringes from 10 metres out; Robbie Farah’s dummy-half play.

Where It Will Be Won: Around the ruck. Even though they are at home the Panthers will need to watch their discipline – they’ve conceded a league-high 143 penalties. Meanwhile statistics reveal no team has been awarded more penalties than the Tigers, who have heard the shrill of the whistle blown in their favour a whopping 136 times this year.

Consequently, expect Robbie Farah to run from dummy-half often. A noted darter from the ruck (three dummy-half line-breaks and fourth-most 128 ruck runs) Farah will look to involve retreating Penrith defenders in the play in an effort to get a piggyback downfield off a penalty.

The Panthers’ markers need to realign quickly – they’ve conceded the most penalties for not being square at the ruck (11). Kevin Kingston is the biggest culprit with an NRL-high three given away. The Panthers will need to weigh up letting the plays flow and risk some Farah and Marshall magic, or else test the refs’ patience.

The History: Played 20; Panthers 14, Wests Tigers 6. Penrith have won five of the past eight clashes between the sides although the Wests Tigers have won the past two, including a nail-biting 20-18 victory at Campbelltown Stadium in Round 11. In the corresponding round last year the Tigers inflicted their biggest defeat on the mountain men, winning 43-18 at Campbelltown.

Conclusion: The Tigers are on a roll and their confidence is sky-high. When they get in the groove like the one they’re in they are a formidable challenge for even the best team.

Unfortunately the Panthers are not one of best teams.

No question they’ll try hard given they are clinging to an outside chance of making the top eight but injuries to key players have robbed them of too much strike-power to match it with the Tigers who are clearly this year’s late-season ‘surge side’. 

Wests Tigers by 12 points.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats