Panthers v Bulldogs preview

Penrith Panthers v Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
Centrebet Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

As sub-plots go, even the wildest of imaginations couldn’t have dreamed up this one. Determined to put the disappointments of recent seasons behind them, Penrith and Canterbury both launch into bold new eras when they run onto Centrebet Stadium for their season opening clash on Saturday night, yet it is impossible to ignore the irony of rival coaches Ivan Cleary and Des Hasler facing off once again.

It was just five months ago that the pair last went head to head in the 2011 Telstra Premiership grand final with Hasler’s powerful Manly side proving too good for the Warriors. Now, in what must be a first in any professional sport, the first competitive game for either coach since that last meeting sees them line up against one another with each in charge of an entirely different club.

Cleary, of course, announced last June that he would be leaving the Warriors after six seasons in charge to return to take up a rich three-year deal with the Panthers. His mission? To rebuild a once great club and return them to the glory years of the early 1990s (and 2003 for that matter).

Hasler’s arrival at Belmore was much more dramatic. Frustrated by ongoing dramas in the Manly boardroom, Hasler stunned fans and officials alike in October by following up his second premiership triumph with the news he would be leaving the club for Canterbury in 2013. The resultant fallout ultimately saw the Manly hero sacked with the Bulldogs quickly getting Hasler on board a year early.

And so we eagerly anticipate Saturday night’s clash and the first real opportunity to see just what these grand final combatants have brought to their new clubs.

For Penrith, plenty of questions remain unanswered.

The departures of key forwards Petero Civoniceva, Trent Waterhouse, Frank Puletua and Matthew Bell as well as experienced backs Shane Elford and Timana Tahu cast plenty of doubt over their depth in 2012 and they will be looking for a good run with injuries over the coming months to overcome the potential problem.

They will also need to find a way to score more points: their 72 tries in 2011 were the third fewest in the competition and only marginally more than battlers Parramatta and the Gold Coast. That said, they certainly appear to boast enough strike power out wide to cause problems should they get it right. Michael Gordon’s return from injury is a huge boost after he played just nine games last season and his battle with Lachlan Coote for the No.1 jersey will be a highlight of their year.

Penrith will also be keen for star centre Michael Jennings to regain his best form after an inconsistent 2011 while halfback Luke Walsh, who recently re-signed for three more seasons, has proven himself to be a quality playmaker during his two years with the club.

Promisingly, they have performed solidly during the pre-season with a win over Parramatta and an 18-all draw with Newcastle.

The Bulldogs, for their part, have clearly under-achieved since their last finals appearance in 2009 and will be looking to their young talent to help turn the club around after farewelling a total of 13 players in the off-season.

Their one big signing is Great Britain prop James Graham and it will be interesting to see how quickly he adjusts to life in the NRL; however in many ways it is Hasler the masses will be keeping their closest eye on. A renowned disciplinarian, he has reportedly worked his players into the ground during the pre-season with young forwards Tim Browne, Marty Taupau and Sam Kasiano among those to reap the rewards based on their trial form – and it is in the forwards that the Bulldogs will be looking to dominate.

Arguably thin on depth out wide, their pack is impressive with Graham joining the likes of Aiden Tolman, Frank Pritchard, Greg Eastwood, Michael Ennis and David Stagg.

Graham will have to wait a bit longer to experience his first true taste of the NRL, however, after being named on the bench for his debut this week.

His is one of a number of Round 1 surprise selections by Hasler, with youngster Josh Reynolds named at five-eighth ahead of Kris Keating – who will also come off the bench – and Dene Halatau starting in the second row ahead of Greg Eastwood.

Bryson Goodwin has earned a recall to first grade on the wing while captain Michael Ennis has been cleared to play his first game of the year after missing the trials following neck surgery.

The big news for Penrith in Round 1 is Coote winning the race for the No.1 jersey over Gordon after impressing during the pre-season. New recruits Chris Armit and Clint Newton have both been named on the bench.

Notably, Panthers captain Luke Lewis has won seven of his past eight games against the Bulldogs. However, coach Ivan Cleary has won just two of 11 games coaching against Des Hasler.

Should Penrith score 36 points this weekend they will reach 1500 points scored against the Bulldogs across all clashes.

Watch Out Bulldogs: The Panthers rely heavily on halfback Luke Walsh to spearhead their attack and he has certainly proved himself to be a real threat in recent seasons. In fact, he topped the entire competition for try assists in 2010 with 32 and even last year, as the side struggled to score tries, his 20 try assists saw him ranked fifth in the NRL. The problem for Penrith has been finding alternate routes to the stripe, so the primary task for the Bulldogs must be to cut down the time Walsh has on the ball. The diminutive No.7 is particularly lethal with the boot – his pinpoint short-kicking game responsible for a whopping 84 per cent of his try assists in 2010 (27 of 32) and 55 per cent last year (11 of 20).

Danger Sign: The Panthers don’t defend attacking kicks well. In fact, in 2011 they conceded more tries from kicks than any other side (27, equal with Cronulla). And they struggle under the high ball. Penrith defused just 59 per cent of cross-field kicks last season (24 of 41) and only 40 per cent of mid-field bombs (six of 15). All up, they defused 66 per cent of all kick types throughout the year which was better than only the Gold Coast and Cronulla. Those stats could prove crucial in the battle for fullback in 2012 – as could this one: Lachlan Coote was the main culprit, defusing just 27 of 47 kicks at 57 per cent.

Watch Out Panthers: If there is one lesson opposition defences learned last season it’s that you can’t take your eyes off Ben Barba. In fact, thanks to Barba’s attacking brilliance, the Bulldogs were the most lethal side in the Telstra Premiership when it came to scoring long-range tries. Incredibly, their 27 tries from beyond halfway was a whopping 10 more than the next best long-range side (the Warriors) with Barba contributing 13 of those on his way to 23 tries for the year. Also, the Bulldogs scored 14 tries from between the 20- and 50-metre lines so the Panthers will have to be switched on no matter where the ball is being played.

Danger Sign: Canterbury need more input from young halves Trent Hodkinson and Kris Keating. The club struggled to score points in 2011 and a lack of creativity from their key playmakers was central to their problems. Notably, Hodkinson’s 10 try assists for the year saw him ranked just 28th in the NRL while Keating ranked equal 34th with eight.

The History: Played 81; Canterbury 46, Penrith 32, drawn 3. The Panthers have dominated in recent seasons, having won nine of their past 12 clashes including the last three in a row. They have also scored more tries against the Bulldogs at Centrebet Stadium than against any other opponent (138).

Lachlan Coote v Ben Barba: The top try-scorers from their respective clubs in 2011, the attacking skills of the rival fullbacks Coote and Barba could go a long way to deciding the outcome here. Barba in particular has the ability to score from anywhere on the field while Coote has the added incentive of trying to hold off the challenge of team-mate Michael Gordon for the No.1 jersey.

The Last Time They Met: The Panthers won the only clash between these two sides 20-6 in Round 17 last season with Travis Burns scoring 16 points from two tries and four goals from four attempts. Bulldogs fullback Ben Barba made nine tackle busts but will be keen to make amends for the hellish night out he had under the high ball in which he was tormented by the boot of Luke Walsh. Lachlan Coote was unstoppable, making 24 runs for a staggering 215 metres.

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall and Nick Beashel; Video Referee – Bernard Sutton.

The Way We See It: It’s difficult to know exactly what to make of these two sides in 2012 given their poor form last season and subsequent changes to their coaching hierarchy. Certainly neither has figured highly in pre-season premiership talk; however there is no doubt both clubs have put the systems in place to work towards long-term success.

In the meantime, they will be keen to kick their 2012 seasons off on the right foot. If the Bulldogs forwards live up to their potential, Penrith could find themselves up against it. They do, however, boast enough strike power to cause the Bulldogs all sorts of headaches if given the chance to do so. Our conclusion? Arguably the toughest game to pick all weekend – don’t bet the house on either!

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.