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Penrith Panthers v Wests Tigers
Centrebet Stadium
Sunday 3pm

Six rounds into the 2012 season and already the situation is dire for these two western Sydney rivals. Despite a respectable 2-2 start over the opening four rounds, Penrith head into this week’s clash on the back of consecutive losses and in desperate need of a win to ensure their season doesn’t spiral out of control. And given they could just as easily have secured another victory when beaten by a late Todd Carney field-goal against Cronulla two weeks ago, their capitulation against Manly on Monday night was hardly the performance coach Ivan Cleary would have seen on the cards.

Still, the Panthers were never expected to figure in premiership calculations just yet – a fact that can’t be said about Wests Tigers. The pre-season title favourites have endured a horrible start to the year with just one win from six leaving them alongside battlers Parramatta and the Gold Coast at the foot of the NRL ladder.

A crippling injury toll, particularly up front, hasn’t helped their cause but it seems that their devastating Round 5 loss to South Sydney in which they led by 12 points with four minutes remaining only to lose in golden point has rattled them. Last Friday’s 18-14 loss to Brisbane was particularly concerning given that only the Broncos’ poor finishing prevented a first-half blowout. 

Put simply, the Tigers are suffering from a crisis of confidence and they must find answers soon if they are to resurrect a season that threatens to spin wildly out of control. No doubt all eyes will be on fullback Tim Moltzen this week after his disappointing display last game. Once a reliable attacking partner for Benji Marshall, he has looked a different player in 2012 – perhaps distracted by the off-season tug o’ war between the Tigers and Dragons over his services.

Much like the side as a whole, however, the potential is there and a win at the foot of the mountains on Sunday afternoon would be just what the doctor ordered. 

The Panthers expect hooker Kevin Kingston to take his place in the side despite suffering an elbow injury late in Monday’s loss to Manly. Prop Sam McKendry moves into the starting line-up, with Danny Galea dropping back to the bench.

Tigers centre Joel Reddy has been named in the starting line-up after missing last week’s game with a hip injury. Blake Ayshford returns to the bench. Former Panther Matt Bell also moves into the starting side at lock in place of the injured Chris Heighington.

Ray Cashmere makes his much-anticipated return to the NRL on the bench following his recent signing to the club where he made his debut back in 2005. Joining him are Ben Murdoch-Masila and Junior Moors who is in for Matt Groat (concussion).

Just 39 points are required this Sunday to make it 20,000 points scored by all teams at Centrebet Stadium over the years, with Penrith contributing 10,271 of those so far.

Whether or not the Tigers can help us get there is debatable: they are yet to score 20 points in a single game this season, which is their worst run since 2000.

Watch for a big defensive performance from Liam Fulton who is averaging 40.3 tackles per game this season – he equalled his personal best with 56 against Brisbane last week.

Watch Out Panthers: Already we’ve seen the best and worst of Benji Marshall so far this season, but even with those inconsistencies he remains the man most capable of souring Penrith’s afternoon. Marshall is a maestro when on song, with a tendency to leave defenders stranded in confusion as to how they were fooled. He is one of a number of Tigers players to come in for plenty of criticism in 2012 but he has still produced eight try assists, six line-break assists and 11 offloads in six games.

Danger Sign: Despite their slow start to the year, the Tigers still boast a very strong kicking game all around the park. They have kicked to open space a total of 26 times in 2012 – a figure bettered only by Melbourne and Cronulla – for a gain of 1237 metres and rank fifth in the NRL for total metres gained with the boot. Their 14 ‘kick-backs’ (first to reach the ball from their own kick) and kick-back percentage of 26.9 is also the third best in the competition.

Watch Out Tigers: The presence of an in-form Michael Jennings has seen the Panthers heavily favour their left side in 2012. In fact, of the 19 tries they’ve scored this season, 13 of them have been down the left with just three on the right and three up the middle. They include five to Jennings himself, who has also contributed five line-breaks, three line-break assists, two try assists and 31 tackle-breaks. He will again be Penrith’s target man.

Danger Sign: Penrith have conceded fewer metres per game than any other side so far in 2012 – which doesn’t bode so well for a Tigers outfit that has struggled up front. The Panthers’ average 1190 places them well clear of all opponents in metres conceded and well clear of Tim Sheens’ men who concede 1410 metres per game (fourth most). More worrying for the Tigers is that they have also made fewer metres than any other side this season with just 1107 per game. They will need to turn that all around this week if they hope to be in the hunt.

Kevin Kingston v Robbie Farah: The battle between these two attack-minded hookers will be pivotal. Kingston relies on sharpness out of dummy-half and a crisp passing game to get Penrith moving forward while Farah at his best is the most lethal attacking players out of dummy-half in the game. He can break the line or put his runners through a gap while his kicking game is second to none.

Where It Will Be Won:
Straight up the middle. If the current trend continues Penrith could well stop the Tigers in their tracks given the former’s ability to cut down on metres conceded and the latter’s struggles to make inroads this season. The first step in any Tigers revival this season will be getting that go-forward back on track.

The History: Played 21; Panthers 14, Wests Tigers 7. Penrith hold a dominant 14-7 record in clashes against the Tigers which is their best win rate against any opponent. However, the Tigers have been on a roll recently with three successive wins in match-ups. The Panthers have scored 18 points in each of those losses – going down 32-18, 20-18 and 43-18.

The Last Time They Met: Wests Tigers prevailed 32-18 in an entertaining contest at Centrebet Stadium in Round 23 last year. It was a fifth consecutive win for the visitors, who ran in six tries to three as they continued to hit top form at the right time of the year.

Penrith was without star centre Michael Jennings after he was stood down for disciplinary reasons, while Luke Lewis, Lachlan Coote and Michael Gordon were also absent through injury.

The Tigers weren’t in any mood to show them mercy as they raced out to an early 16-0 lead. Chris Heighington got the ball rolling after just four minutes when he pounced on a Robbie Farah kick to score before Tim Moltzen steamed through a gap 11 minutes later to make it 10-0. Gareth Ellis then rubbed salt into the wound with a powerful run after 30 minutes. However Penrith fought bravely and had narrowed the gap to 10 points by halftime, with Trent Waterhouse the first to reach a Harry Seijka grubber.

Shortly after the break they were right back in the contest at 16-12 when Adrian Purtell leapt highest to gather in a Luke Walsh bomb and the faithful were dreaming of a remarkable victory.

But that’s as good as it got for Penrith, with Farah capitalising on a strong Blake Ayshford run to extend the Tigers’ lead again and Beau Ryan intercepting a Waterhouse pass to race 80 metres and seal the deal with 15 minutes remaining.

Ellis crossed for his second with three minutes remaining before young Panther Ryan Walker scored a consolation try at the death.

Liam Fulton had a huge game for the Tigers, running for 156 metres and making 43 tackles while Chris Heighington made 123 metres and four offloads.

Nathan Smith was Penrith’s best with 124 metres and 40 tackles.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Michael Wise; Video Referee – Russell Smith. 

The Way We See It: Neither of these sides has set the rugby league world on fire this season and again it is difficult to pick either with any confidence. It would be a surprise if the

Panthers didn’t come out firing given their poor performance against Manly on Monday night and the fact they are back in front of their home fans, desperate for their first home win (they stand 0-3)  means they will certainly take some beating. 

The Tigers, on the other hand, are all about the potential. Should they get their act together they have the ability to tear all-comers to shreds, but right now their confidence seems to have taken a battering and changing that mind-set is easier said than done. The home side gets our vote here in a tight one. Panthers by two points.

Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 6pm.

Statistics: NRL Stats
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