Panthers v Dragons preview

Penrith Panthers v St George Illawarra Dragons
Centrebet Stadium
Monday 7pm

Back-ended salary dramas… the dramatic dumping of star centre Michael Jennings… zero wins at Centrebet Stadium from five attempts… and with their worst opening 10 rounds of a season in a decade: welcome to the Penrith Panthers’ nightmare.

Things really have gone pear-shaped for Ivan Cleary’s side in a hurry. Just six weeks ago they were in the top eight with a 2-2 record but five straight losses – two of them 30-point whitewashes – see them staring at just the Titans at the bottom of the premiership ladder. In five matches they’ve seen sides post an average 30.6 points against them, with an average winning margin of 23 points. They now have a points differential (-88) equal to their ladder rank.

Clearly, something has to give – and perhaps it already has, with the coach losing patience with sometimes-contributor Jennings on the eve of New South Wales Origin team selection. That bold move is sure to wipe any complacency from other players; certainly they’ll need maximum focus and effort if they’re to compete with the Dragons on Monday night, with the Red V still smarting from the belting they received from the Cowboys last Friday.

The 30-6 defeat saw the Red V plummet from fourth on the ladder to eighth – and a successive loss here could see them drop as low as 11th. Matt Prior’s five-week suspension adds further drain on their back-row depth given Beau Scott’s elbow injury and Ben Creagh’s likely Origin call-up, meaning they’ll need to rely on some fringe first-graders for longer periods than they would have liked over the coming months.

In Panthers team changes, Ivan Cleary has recalled Brad Tighe to replace Jennings in the centres, with Chris Armit’s addition to form a five-man interchange his only other tweak.

Meanwhile Prior’s suspension sees Trent Merrin start in the second row, with Dean Young’s return from injury shunting last week’s lock Jack De Belin to the extended interchange bench. Atelea Vea and Jake Marketo are new faces on the pine.

Only once in the past two decades have the Panthers secured just two wins by Round 10 – in 2002 when they ended up 12th of 15 teams.

Watch Out Panthers: Trent Merrin may already know he’s got himself a Blues jumper when he runs out on Monday night. If that happens no-one will be too surprised – starting every game off the bench (before this match) Merrin is averaging career highs in runs (16), metres (134.7), tackles (30.2) and minutes played (51). In addition he leads NRL interchange players for territory gained and tackle-breaks (19). Impressively, he leads all Dragons front-rowers (including hooker) for minutes played. Merrin already has a try assist and line-break assist to his name and will be particularly damaging in centre-field 20 metres out, feeding off halfback Ben Hornby or hooker Mitch Rein.

The Panthers need to watch Dragons shifts when they bring the ball back out of their own half – Penrith have leaked the most tries from over halfway (six). They’ve also conceded the most tries to opposition line-breaks (21) – the Dragons have scored exactly a third of their tries from line-breaks.

Danger Sign: Jamie Soward is due a breakout game. When they last met the No.6 scored a try, made two try assists and a line-break. He has just one line-break to date and will look to test the inexperienced Panthers halves, running to the line more often.  

Watch Out Dragons: The Panthers kickers will most likely resort to the boot in their attempts to post points. The Dragons have failed to flatter fielding kicks so far, defusing cross-field bombs at a terrible 47 per cent and showing a weakness to short kicks (defusing just 50 per cent).

Luke Lewis will be hoping to improve on his poor three-win record against the Red V from 13 appearances, in a game where he’ll draw level with Craig Gower for most appearances by a Penrith player against the joint venture club. Should he fail to score a try it will be the first time in his 12-year career he has gone the opening 10 rounds of a season without a four-pointer. Also, he hasn’t scored at Centrebet Stadium since June last year. Don’t expect that statistic to gather momentum for much longer.

Danger Sign: The Panthers don’t hit the short right side often – in fact they’ve done it just 25 times in 2012, the fewest number by any team. But that could prove a surprise weapon here, especially when they are inside the Dragons’ 20-metre zone. Daniel Vidot will be the target.

Lachlan Coote v Brett Morris: A battle between two elusive ball-runners. Coote ranks fifth among all No.1s for tackle-breaks with 45 and is adding 127 metres from an average 14 runs a game. Last time they met he scored a try and set up his side’s only other four-pointer, as well as punching through for a line bust. Meanwhile Morris leads all fullbacks for metres gained (167) and has the highest offloading rate by a custodian (two a game). Last time they met he beat Coote in their head-to-head clash hands-down (albeit on the wing), crossing for two tries and making four line-breaks and 12 tackle-breaks. No question these guys will both star again.

Where It Will Be Won: Getting over the tryline. It may sound simplistic but the fact is both of these teams have struggled to post points in 2012. The Dragons average just 15.3 points per match through Round 9 – fourth fewest of all teams and their lowest average for more than six years – while the Panthers are even less successful with their attacking moves, registering just 14.8 points per match. Given there’s just 0.5 of a point difference the winner will be the side that clicks with the ball in hand.

The History: Played 23; Dragons 16, Panthers 7. The Dragons have won seven of the past eight clashes between the sides. They also hold a 6-5 advantage at Centrebet Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: The Dragons defeated the Panthers 32-12 at WIN Stadium in Round 26 last year.

The Dragons raced to a 12-nil lead inside the half hour courtesy of two tries to Brett Morris. His first in the 15th minute came after some brilliant footwork and lovely pass from centre Matt Cooper. The left winger crossed again when Darius Boyd floated a long ball wide, with Morris weaving through the abundant cover defence.

The Panthers got on the scoreboard when Blake Austin cleaned up a David Simmons bat-back of a cross-field bomb with 52 minutes gone, before Jamie Soward added to the Dragons’ tally when trailing through to gather a wonderful Beau Scott offload at close range.

The home side went further ahead when Jason Nightingale crossed after a bullet-like cut-out pass from Soward before Lachlan Coote finished off a short-ball raid for a 22-12 scoreline with 15 minutes to play. Tries to Matt Cooper and Mitch Rein rounded out the scoring.

Although the Panthers enjoyed the majority of possession they were powerless to repel the Dragons’ attack, which posted nine punishing line-breaks and 23 offloads on the evening.  

While Morris was easily the best on ground the Panthers were best served by interchange Blake Austin who scored a try and offered a try assist in just his second NRL game.

Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Brenden Wood; Video Referee – Paul Mellor.

The Way We See It: The stats and form point to a Dragons win – but our gut is screaming ‘upset!’ here. On a cold Monday night at the foot of the mountains, with forward stocks depleted and with Origin teams already selected, the Dragons may do it tough. Meanwhile the rocket lit under Michael Jennings may have a hugely positive effect on the rest of the Penrith squad. Panthers by seven points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats