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Penrith Panthers v South Sydney Rabbitohs
Centrebet Stadium
Sunday 3pm (AEDT)

Surprise packets Penrith face their acid test this week up against a Rabbitohs side desperate to get off the bottom of the competition ladder after a pair of hard-fought losses.

The Panthers competed strongly before falling narrowly to the Bulldogs in Round 1, with the blue-and-whites franking that form with a decisive win over the Dragons last week that thrust them to the top of the NRL heap. The Mountain Men then dominated the Roosters last weekend, impressively managing a clean scoresheet away from home.

Two things about the 18-nil victory in particular had coach Ivan Cleary breathing a sigh of relief: the fact the side covered for the loss of injured strike weapon Michael Gordon; and the return to try-scoring form of centre Michael Jennings.

Additionally, Penrith showed they don’t have to toss the ball around with abandon to be an attacking force; last season they made the most offloads of all teams (averaging 13.9) but so far they’ve made the second fewest (just 5.5).

Of course, the last week’s opponents the Roosters were at-the-death victors over the Rabbitohs in Round 1, so that’s a statistic that – on the surface at least – is sure to warm the hearts of Panthers fans.

That said, the bunnies gave the Storm a run for their money in Melbourne last week, matching motors to head to the halftime sheds 10-all before the home side blew them off the park in the second 40 with Billy Slater running riot for a 24-10 final scoreline.

New Souths coach Michael Maguire will be quietly confident his side can take down the Panthers after their spirited performance in enemy territory against the 2012 premiership co-favourites. It was just a drop-off in second-half completions (63 per cent to 71 per cent) that proved the difference – that, and the Billy Slater factor.

Their troops are committed – and importantly they’re missing far fewer tackles than previously (29 compared to the NRL-lowlight 39 of 2011).  

However, the Rabbitohs will really need to psych themselves up on the team bus as it speeds west – they haven’t won at Centrebet Stadium since 2002.

Souths have a new-look wing attack this week, with Andrew Everingham and Shaune Corregan replacing Fetuli Talanoa and Chris McQueen, the latter reverting to the interchange. Nathan Merritt remains sidelined with a toe injury. The only other change sees Issac Luke start at hooker, with Nathan Peats benched, while Jason Clark is a new face on an extended interchange.

Meanwhile Panthers coach Ivan Cleary has retained the side that spanked the Roosters, with Blake Austin added to form an extended interchange.

Watch Out Panthers: Issac Luke has been quick to reassert himself as one of the most damaging runners out of dummy-half. The South Sydney hooker ran 17 times from marker in his debut game for 2012 last week – that’s equal with Storm rake Cameron Smith’s efforts from two games. Luke tallied 142 metres against the Storm and he’ll be primed for another huge performance against a favourite foe – last time he ran out against the Panthers Luke scored a try and made 131 metres out of dummy-half, with a whopping five offloads and six tackle busts.

Dave Taylor has hit the ground running too – he leads all second-rowers for offloads (with four) and try assists (one). And he loves playing the Panthers, with a deft try assist, three offloads and 137 metres last outing.

The signs are there that Greg Inglis is warming to something special – he’s averaging 102 metres and leads all centres for line-break assists (with two).

Danger Sign: The Panthers will need to be alert to Issac Luke linking with big Sam Burgess near the goal posts close to their try line. Burgess charged onto an inside ball from Luke to plunge over against the Storm last week, and the Panthers’ centre-field defence had its shaky moments against the Bulldogs in Round 1, conceding two tries.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: Michael Jennings is back! After posting just one try in 2011 Jennings has three in two games in 2012, including a double last week. His first try against the Roosters was a wonderful finish on the left edge, while his second was a runaway effort down the same corridor – and that’s the exact area the Storm exploited against the Rabbitohs, last week, scoring four of their five tries there.  

The bunnies need to watch Luke Walsh too – he conjured two try assists the last time the sides met and it was Walsh’s drifting run that led to Jennings’ first try last week. When Walsh is at his best the Panthers post plenty of points.    

Danger Sign: The Rabbitohs need to have a healthy respect for Lachlan Coote. The Panthers fullback has scored two tries in three games against the red-and-greens and boasts a phenomenal 19 tries in just 28 appearances at home. Coote is in fine form, making 167 metres last week and running through nine Roosters defenders. Souths need to shut him down before he winds up or they’ll pay a huge price.

Sam McKendry v Sam Burgess: This battle of the goliaths should be worth the price of admission alone. Both turned back the clock with barnstorming tries last week, second-rower Burgess from close range and prop McKendry busting through the Roosters’ defence to charge 30 metres to cross unopposed. Kiwi international McKendry is making every game count in his quest for inclusion in the Kiwi squad for the upcoming Test against the Kangaroos in New Zealand next month. He has a good history against the Rabbitohs, having made 16 hit-ups for 137 metres with three offloads last time they met. Meanwhile Burgess’ 41 hit-ups are the second most by any player in 2012, while his five offloads are the most by a second-rower.   

Where It Will Be Won: Completions will be crucial. The Panthers are showing good respect for possession, completing 83.5 per cent of their sets to date while the Rabbitohs are averaging 75.5 per cent. They’ll need to improve and push close to 80 per cent if they’re to come out on top.

The History: Played 71; Rabbitohs 38, Panthers 32, drawn 1. The Panthers have won five of the past eight clashes and the past two straight, including a 54-18 hiding at Centrebet Stadium in 2010. Penrith hold an 18-16 advantage at home, with one match drawn.  

The Last Time They Met: The Panthers prevailed 22-10 in the rain at Centrebet Stadium back in Round 12 last year. In a surprisingly high-quality contest given the conditions (just 18 errors all up) the home side raced to a 16-4 lead at halftime, scoring three tries to one and posting four unanswered line-breaks. The Rabbitohs turned things around in the second half, with hooker Issac Luke crossing immediately after the break and Chris Sandow’s conversion narrowing the gap to 16-10. From there the bunnies actually shaded the home side everywhere but on the scoreboard – they ploughed out three unanswered line-breaks of their own in the second 40, as well as a 250-metre territorial advantage, but still couldn’t get their noses in front. Lachlan Coote’s try with nine minutes remaining snuffed out their revival. The Panthers were best served by props McKendry (137 metres) and Petero Civoniceva (172 metres) while Coote carved out 170 metres with eight tackle-breaks. Fullback Rhys Wesser starred for the visitors with a match-high 217 metres.   

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Adam Gee & Dave Munro; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.

The Way We See It: The Panthers have surprised us – but the Rabbitohs’ competitive form can’t be ignored. This will be a close one. The Rabbitohs will win a game sooner rather than later, so taking into account the topsy-turvy results of the opening two weeks we’ll jump into their camp. Rabbitohs by four points.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports 2 – delayed 6pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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