Panthers v Warriors
Centrebet Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

They may be out of finals contention but the Panthers’ players still have bucket-loads of motivation this week, with outgoing Warriors’ coach Ivan Cleary certain to cast more than a casual eye over the squad he’ll be in charge of when he moves to the foot of the mountains next year.

Plus, it’s Panthers’ captain Petero Civoniceva’s last home game before he resumes his career with the Broncos in 2012.

The under-strength Panthers dropped out of the race for the semi-finals when the Wests Tigers lowered their colours at home last Friday. It was always going to be a tough assignment, missing Luke Lewis and Lachlan Coote to injury along with star centre Michael Jennings, jettisoned for turning up to training alcohol-affected. They trailed 16-nil before rallying to close the gap to four points shortly after halftime before the Tigers pulled away.

The loss leaves them 11th on the ladder, three wins off the finals zone.

Meanwhile the Warriors pulled off a great escape against the Knights in Auckland. They trailed 12-4 approaching the 60-minute mark before rapid-fire tries to Shaun Johnson and captain Simon Mannering seized the lead, with a late try to Feleti Mateo confirming the win. 

The victory saw them retain sixth place on the ladder but they’ve closed the gap on the fifth-placed Dragons (who they meet next week) to just one competition point. And with the fourth-placed Cowboys just one win ahead of them on the table you can bet the Kiwis will be steeled for a disciplined performance, still eyeing a top-four berth.

Panthers’ caretaker coach Steve Georgallis would have placed an extra focus on defence this week – the Warriors average 24.6 points at Centrebet Stadium.

It’s a milestone week for Panthers’ prop Sam McKendry who plays his 50th NRL game.

In Panthers’ team changes Jennings has been named at fullback after serving a week of penance, which pushes David Simmons to the wing and bumps Ryan Walker from the squad. Travis Burns returns at five-eighth for Harry Seijka while Kevin Kingston will start at hooker with Nafe Seluini relegated to the pine. Shane Elford rounds out an extended bench of 18. Lachlan Coote and Luke Lewis remain injured.

Meanwhile Ivan Cleary has opted to start Jacob Lillyman at prop, with Sam Rapira set to inject off the bench. Lance Hohaia rejoins the team off the bench for Pita Godinet, while judiciary-charged Ukuma Ta’ai has been overlooked. 

Watch Out Panthers: Shaun Johnson has been a revelation in the No.7 for the Warriors, his speed and support play making him more like a second fullback than simply a ruck organiser. Johnson leads all established NRL halfbacks for metres gained (79), and actually outruns busy Cowboys superstar Johnathan Thurston (74 metres). He’s scored five tries in nine games, including a dazzling support effort trailing Manu Vatuvei last week, and has forged a wonderful partnership with five-eighth James Maloney. The Panthers’ ruck defenders were guilty of going to sleep against the Wests Tigers last week and it cost them dearly when Robbie Farah scored in the second half. They can’t afford a repeat here or Johnson will cut them to ribbons through the centre.

Panthers’ winger Adrian Purtell will have his hands full trying to contain Manu Vatuvei. ‘The Beast’ has nine tries and nine line-breaks from his 14 games plus 44 tackle busts and 24 offloads. He’s particularly strong in the air, scoring four times from kicks. (The Warriors scored three tries down the left fringe off kicks in their Round 8 win.)

Meanwhile Purtell has defused just 33 per cent of cross-field bombs and 40 per cent of grubbers. He’ll be targeted. 

Danger Sign: The Panthers will need to pounce on dropped balls or else the Warriors can turn their errors into points in the blink of an eye. The Warriors have scored five tries from turnovers and 15 tries from over halfway – the second most in the comp. Kevin Locke sent the Panthers reeling with an 80-metre solo try in Round 8.  

Watch Out Warriors: This is a crunch game for Michael Jennings who needs to win back some favour with Panthers’ management and also his team-mates. It’s been a pretty lean year for Jennings, who played for the Kangaroos in 2009. He has just one try and five line-breaks to his name in 2011but when he’s ‘on’ there’s no more dangerous broken-field runner, as he showed when guiding NSW to a memorable victory in Origin II. 

It’s also Petero Civoniceva’s final home game in a Panthers’ jersey. You can bet he’ll be pumped for a typically Petero performance – he averages 128 metres a game and has 28 tackle busts and 26 offloads in his 50 minutes on the field each week. If Petero makes the opening hit-up when the Panthers have possession you’ll know the home side are on their way to a dominant set – and there should be plenty of them.

Danger Sign: The Panthers can gain a result if they send the ball quickly through the hands to their flanks. The Warriors have leaked 20 tries off passes – fourth most by any team. Luke Walsh would be smart to mix their raids up with some aerial bombardment and some grubbers – Trent Waterhouse scored from a grubber last week and Adrian Purtell grabbed a four-pointer from a cross-field bomb.

Plays To Watch: Feleti Mateo’s offloads; Kevin Locke’s explosive pace, Lance Hohaia’s support play; Luke Walsh’s inside balls – he caught the Warriors’ ruck defenders napping when a lovely no-look inside pass to Brad Tighe led to a Nafe Seluini try against the Warriors in Round 8; Petero Civoniceva winding up those ramrod legs; Michael Jennings going hunting for work to redeem himself.  

Where It Will Be Won: This should be a ding-dong battle of second-phase play, matching the two most prolific offloading sides in 2011. The Panthers lead the way, averaging 14.4 offloads a game, with the Warriors close behind with 13.4 a game. 

In the Warriors’ 26-18 victory at Mt Smart Stadium in Round 8 the Panthers made 21offloads to the home side’s 17. Trent Waterhouse led the way for the visitors with seven, while Feleti Mateo contributed five for the home side. Mateo leads the way in the competition with 61, while Waterhouse ranks second with 52.

With both sides clearly skilled at slipping belated passes the result could hinge on which team manages to limit their opponents – and the stats reveal neither team has much to boast about here. The Warriors concede the sixth-most offloads each game (12.4), only marginally ahead of the Panthers’ 12.8. The scoreboard attendant might be working overtime…

The History: Played 27; Panthers 14, Warriors 12, drawn 1. The Warriors have five wins and a draw in the past eight clashes between the sides, including wins in the past two. But the Panthers have the edge at home, winning seven to the Warriors’ five, with one draw. 

Conclusion: The Warriors have the form but the occasion of Civoniceva’s last game at the foot of the mountains shouldn’t be dismissed. Nor should the Jennings factor – the Panthers could well spring a surprise.

The Warriors have been impressive and coherent winning five of their past six… but we just get the feeling they’re due for a hiccup. We’ll tip a Panthers upset by eight points in a particularly high-scoring game.  

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Grant Atkins; Video Ref – Pat Reynolds.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm. 

* Stats: NRL Stats