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Raiders v Panthers
Canberra Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm
Both teams might be out of the semi-finals picture but there’s still a heck of a lot of pride at stake down in the nation’s capital on Saturday evening – in one of the NRL’s keenest interclub rivalries, the winner of this clash will nudge ahead in the head-to-head ledger. 

In 59 meetings to date both teams have recorded 29 victories, with one match drawn – hence, bragging rights are the top motivator.
The Raiders bumbled to their fourth loss in a row and their sixth in their past seven outings when falling to the lowly Titans on the Gold Coast last week. The defeat leaves them in the dangerous mix for the wooden spoon (it would be their first since their inaugural 1982 season). They enter this clash in 14th position, level with the Titans on 16 competition points with just a one-point buffer over the cellar-dwelling Eels.

Meanwhile the Panthers came out firing against the Warriors last week but trailed 16-nil after some butchered scoring opportunities and schoolboy errors. Their 26-12 loss was their fifth in a row. They are safe from the wooden spoon (currently 11th on 20 competition points) but plenty of players need to show application if they are to figure in Ivan Cleary’s long-term plans from next year.

The Raiders will be pumped for Alan Tongue’s final home game – coach David Furner has named the retiring captain as starting hooker this week, relegating Mick Picker to the bench.

Meanwhile Panthers’ coach Steve Georgallis welcomes back Lachlan Coote at fullback, with Michael Jennings succumbing to yet another knee injury. Sam McKendry gets the call to start at prop opposite skipper Petero Civoniceva, relegating Tim Grant to the bench. Nafe Seluini will start at hooker ahead of Kevin Kingston. Blake Austin joins the interchange, with Matt Bell rounding out a bench of 18.

Despite their close head-to-head record Canberra Stadium remains a bogy venue for the Panthers – they’ve managed just five of 19 victories there since these sides locked horns in the 1991 grand final.

And make of this what you will: Canberra have conceded the most points over the past five weeks (161) – but Penrith have proved the NRL’s least potent side during the same period, adding just 62 points to their ‘For’ column.

Watch Out Raiders: Canberra coach David Furner will have impressed the need to shut down the Panthers’ second-phase play – Penrith are the kings of the offload in 2011, averaging 14.3 each game. Players to watch include Trent Waterhouse (53, third most all year by any player), Adrian Purtell (28) and Petero Civoniceva (27). The Panthers have scored 12 tries from offloads so far, the second most behind the Rabbitohs’ 13. 

Coote’s return at fullback gives the Panthers some punch – he’s averaging 133 metres and has busted through four tackles a game so far.

Centre Brad Tighe continues to mature; last week he made two line-breaks down the right flank and contributed a game-high 181 metres.

Danger Sign: The Panthers will fancy their chances any time they get inside the Raiders’ 10-metre zone and will look to force their way through up the centre of the ruck. The Raiders have conceded the second-most tries from close range (46) but they’ve also leaked the most tries up the guts (26).

Watch Out Panthers: Rookie halfback Sam Williams will be primed for a big effort in front of the Canberra faithful for the last time in 2011. This will be Williams’ 17th outing in the No.7 this year, filling in for the injured Mat Orford, and in that time he’s shown glimpses of considerable promise. He has 10 try assists and six line-break assists for the year; last week he ran 92 metres and added a line-break. 

Expect Williams and halves partner Josh McCrone to go to the air out wide and around the goal posts; the Panthers have conceded 24 tries to kicks, the most by any team. Their 67 per cent bomb defusal rate is the lowest in the league.

Danger Sign: The Panthers need to guard against a ‘soft’ try from dummy-half – they’ve conceded seven to date, the second most by any side. 

Plays To Watch: Shaun Fensom tackling himself to a standstill (48 a game); Blake Ferguson (average 136 metres plus 93 tackle-breaks) giving opposition winger David Simmons a migraine; props Brett White and David Shillington making a statement up front; Luke Walsh taking on the Raiders’ line and popping short balls for fringe-running forwards; Petero Civoniceva charging through the centre of the ruck; Trent Waterhouse causing pain for Joel Thompson from close range down the left edge.  

Where It Will Be Won: Composure. These sides are among the worst teams in the NRL for missed tackles and errors – the team that takes a deep breath and builds pressure by completing their sets with a minimum of errors will be in the box seat.

Clearly they need to respect the football – the Panthers make the most mistakes (12.5) while the Raiders are half an error a game behind them. In their loss to the Warriors last week the Panthers conceded possession 13 times.

The Raiders miss the second most tackles (37.5) while the Panthers miss 34.1 on average. In their loss to the Gold Coast last week the Raiders notched a staggering 42 missed tackles.
The History: Played 59; Raiders 29, Panthers 29, drawn 1. Honours are even four games apiece from the past eight games. The Panthers were convincing 36-10 winners at home in Round 5. The Raiders hold a 15-6 record in games at Canberra Stadium.  

Conclusion: It all boils down to desire and pride. The home side have had their injury problems in 2011 but they’ve also been disappointing. They need to give their home fans a pick-me-up. 

Also, in recent weeks we’ve seen sides in the firing line of the wooden spoon pull out gutsy, against-the-run-of-play performances (think Titans and Roosters). The Raiders fall into this category this week.

Meanwhile the Panthers have shed a coach and are on the brink of a rebuilding phase. Plenty of their players need to stand up.

The form lines of both sides are so topsy-turvy this is a bit of a lottery. But based on the Raiders’ strong record at home the lean is towards them. Canberra by eight points.

Match Officials: Referees – Brett Suttor & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & David Ryan; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.

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

* Stats: NRL Stats