Ivan Cleary must be wondering what more could possibly go wrong in the first half of his debut season as coach of the Panthers. Having already lost marquee star Michael Gordon for the season proper Penrith’s attacking stocks nosedived last Monday night when halfback Luke Walsh sustained a knee injury that will in all likelihood sideline him for a few weeks.
That Walsh’s name was included in the team sheet released on Tuesday was more wishful thinking than educated assessment, given results of scans on his knee suggest a recuperation period of at least a fortnight.
However, given the Panthers’ woeful efforts with the ball in hand over the past three rounds, even if Walsh were to make a miraculous recovery, the mountain men look long odds to notch their first win of the season at Centrebet Stadium after four demoralising defeats in front of their home fans.
Penrith have mustered just 14 points in attack in their past three losses to the Sea Eagles, Wests Tigers and Knights – the former two defeats 30-point whitewashes. They languish in 14th place on the ladder with an inglorious -54 points differential and after this week’s opponent meet the Dragons, Cowboys and Sea Eagles in successive games. Clearly they need to make a statement or risk being erased from the 2012 premiership equation altogether.
Meanwhile the premiership-pacesetting Storm continue to juggernaut ahead and show no signs of a dip in form, winning eight in a row courtesy of the best attacking and defensive record in the league.
Last week the Warriors gave them a run for their money for three quarters of the contest before the Storm’s backline put them to the sword with three tries in the final 11 minutes to register a comfortable victory.
The good news for Panthers coach Cleary is that Michael Jennings (shoulder) and Luke Lewis (arm), who both left the field early last Monday, are fit to go this week. However, Luke Walsh’s absence presents Cleary with a selection headache – with regular five-eighth Travis Burns already covering for Kevin Kingston in the No.9 he must choose between Harry Siejka and bad boy Arana Taumata to partner Blake Austin in the halves. (That said, word has it Kingston is a 50:50 chance of returning this weekend.)
Tim Grant has been given the nod to start at prop this week, with Dayne Weston benched. Matt Robinson has been added to form a five-man interchange.
Craig Bellamy has made two cosmetic changes to the Storm unit: Bryan Norrie will start at prop with Jason Ryles hitting the interchange, with Todd Lowrie returning at lock and Ryan Hinchcliffe benched. Siosaia Vave rounds out their six-man interchange.
Winger Justin O’Neill is the Storm’s lucky charm – he remains undefeated in first grade since Round 2 last year.
Watch Out Panthers: A defensive focus needs to be applied to two areas: the Storm score more tries from kicks than other teams (11 so far); and Melbourne will target the Panthers’ left-side tacklers – their 22 tries on the right side of the field are the most scored by any team.
Centres Will Chambers and Dane Nielsen became only the third Storm pairing to cross for tries in the same game last week. Right-side centre Chambers has been in devastating form since his return to the code and he notched his first career hat-trick against the Warriors.
Chambers is a robust force close to the try line – he leads all centres for tries (seven) and ranks second in his position for line-breaks (also seven). He has a very good sidestep and body swerve that Jennings will need to monitor.
Look for Justin O’Neill to add to his two tries for the year – the Storm have played at Centrebet Stadium nine times and only once has a winger failed to cross the stripe.
Danger Sign: Just watch Cameron Smith selectively hit runners around the Panthers’ goal posts from close range – Penrith have leaked more tries under the posts than all teams (11). Tall timber Bryan Norrie and Jesse Bromwich will be the likely recipients.
Watch Out Storm: Centre Michael Jennings is the key to the Panthers’ attack: although he is yet to break through for a win against the Storm in his past seven outings, he has tested their mettle, scoring two tries and creating havoc out wide with five line-breaks. Jennings crossed for his sixth try of the season last week and also made his sixth line-break. His one-on-one contest with Will Chambers will be a cracker.
Jennings has never scored against the Storm at Centrebet Stadium; maybe this is the game.
For a side languishing near the bottom of the table the Panthers’ stats aren’t all that bad: they actually match motors with the Storm in combined territory differential, with the Storm registering 65 metres more than they concede each week and the Panthers (second-fewest metres conceded overall) notching 64 metres. The Panthers are due to win at home some stage this season, so complacency needs to be avoided.
Prop Tim Grant needs to be contained – he’s played just two games but is averaging a massive 20 runs for 156 metres a game.
Danger Sign: Melbourne have conceded the third-most tries from dummy-half (four). Penrith have scored just one this year but expect them to test out the Melbourne goal-line defence should they get in range. Travis Burns will have a dig at some stage.
Ryan Hoffman v Clint Newton: Former premiership-winning back-row team-mates lock horns. Hoffman is in rampaging form on the left edge for the Storm, adding 103 metres a game. He’s scored three tries and made three line busts too.
Meanwhile right-edge attacker Newton’s return to Hunter Stadium last week was personally satisfying, with two tries easing the pain of defeat. Newton has been a valuable addition to the Panthers and they’ll look to his offloading skills (team-high 10) to spark their second-phase play.
Where It Will Be Won: The long-kicking game. The Storm kickers are the best in the comp, kicking to open space 63 per cent of the time. The Panthers must pressure Cooper Cronk and co. or they’ll be pegged in their half too often to compete. Meanwhile the Panthers’ kickers are the worst in the comp, with a lousy 46.2 per cent rate of booting clear of opposition players.
The History: Played 23; Storm 17, Panthers 6. The Panthers haven’t defeated Melbourne since 2005 – in the interim they’ve lost eight straight clashes. But they boast a fair record at Centrebet Stadium, losing only five of nine games against the Storm.
The Last Time They Met: The Storm defeated the Panthers 26-6 at AAMI Park in Round 22 last year.
Penrith shocked the local fans early when Adrian Purtell powered across in the right corner in the sixth minute although their anxiety was wiped when Ryan Hinchcliffe latched onto an inside pass from Cooper Cronk to square things up at 6-all with 15 minutes gone.
Solid defence by the Panthers (just 12 missed tackles) saw the teams head to halftime with no addition to the scoreline.
A penalty goal shortly after the break edged the Storm ahead before a trio of tries to Sika Manu, Billy Slater and Kevin Proctor propelled the home side to its winning total with eight minutes remaining.
Slater’s was the try that broke the Panthers’ spirit. Well in the contest at the 65-minute mark, they buckled when the Storm fullback leapt high to catch a perfectly directed Gareth Widdop centre-field kick near the goal posts, then jinked past opposite number David Simmons to score.
The Storm laid the foundation for their win with solid first-half defence: the Panthers breached their defensive line four times and forced them to make 30 tackles more.
Penrith unravelled after halftime, missing 28 tackles alone in the second 40 minutes.
The Storm were best served by Widdop, Slater and Cronk who each made try assists, while Simmons was the Panthers’ best with a game-high 178 metres and three offloads.
Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Luke Potter & Dave Ryan; Video Referee – Rod Lawrence.
The Way We See It: It will either be a massive upset to the Panthers or a resounding victory to the premiership frontrunners. We’re leaning towards the latter. The Storm by 20 points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats