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Penrith Panthers v Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
Centrebet Stadium
Sunday 2pm

It’s been a tough start to the season for Penrith, who came into 2012 full of optimism following the arrival of new coach Ivan Cleary but have struggled to gain any real traction over the opening 11 rounds. Truth be told, not a lot has gone their way – already expected to struggle for depth should injury strike, their worst fears have been realised early with Michael Gordon, Tim Grant and Nathan Smith among those to already suffer serious injuries.

But whatever the reasons, there is little doubt that their season has reached its tipping point ahead of Sunday’s clash with Manly. With just three wins from 11 games, this is one of a number of must-win games ahead if they are any chance of climbing back into finals contention.

But it won’t be easy. The Sea Eagles appear to have overcome their inconsistent start to the season with four wins in a row and welcome back State of Origin quartet Tony Williams, Jamie Buhrer, Glenn Stewart and Brett Stewart for their trip out to Penrith.

It’s been an impressive run from the reigning premiers who have shown a tremendous ability to grind out victory. Notably, all four of those recent wins have been by four points or less, with games against Canterbury and Brisbane decided by just two points.

However, more worrying for Penrith is that this will be the first time since their Round 1 win over the Warriors that Manly have been at close to full strength following the return from injury of Kieran Foran last weekend.

Nevertheless, Penrith fans have some reason to feel optimistic. Their boys finally snapped a five-game losing streak and won their first game on home soil in 2012 with a thrilling golden-point success over St George Illawarra two weeks ago. And although they were pipped 30-28 by North Queensland last Saturday night they were brave in defeat in what is one of the NRL’s toughest road trips.

They will also be keen to make amends for their Round 6 clash with Manly, when they were embarrassed 30-0 at Brookvale Oval.

No doubt all eyes will be on the Penrith team sheet on Sunday to find out the fate of NSW State of Origin centre Michael Jennings. Dumped to NSW Cup only a fortnight ago before being called into the Blues squad by Ricky Stuart, Jennings’ name was notably absent from all grades when the teams were announced on Tuesday, with Ivan Cleary reportedly waiting to see how he pulls up after Origin. However, Cleary has named captain Luke Lewis to make his return in the back row.

Manly have named the Stewart brothers and Tony Williams in their starting line-up, with Jamie Buhrer set to come off the bench. Dean Whare moves to the wing in place of the injured David Williams, while Michael Oldfield goes back to NSW Cup.

Coach Geoff Toovey has named a seven-man bench that includes Liam Foran, Vic Mauro and Daniel Harrison.

Incredibly, Manly have only lost four Round 12 fixtures in the past 25 years; however they haven’t fared too well at Centrebet Stadium, with just six wins from their past 16 games there.

Penrith’s front-row duo of Tim Grant and Sam McKendry have enjoyed 10 per cent more game time this season following the departure of Petero Civoniceva and are currently the first Panthers props to both be averaging more than 100 metres and 25 tackles per game.

Watch Out Panthers: Penrith would be well-served steering clear of Sea Eagles back-rower Anthony Watmough, who has the added motivation of proving NSW selectors wrong for overlooking him for State of Origin I. Watmough is a powerhouse in defence and ranks first in the NRL for dominant tackles this season with 38. By comparison, no other player has reached 30 dominant tackles in 2012.

Danger Sign: Penrith’s once-lethal short-kicking game has deserted them this season. The Panthers have scored just five tries from kicks in 2012 – fewer than every other NRL side except Newcastle – which has no doubt contributed to the fact that they’ve only scored 31 tries this season. Manly have scored twice as many tries from kicks so far with 10. In fact, the Sea Eagles have been exceptional with the boot this season, their 7369 metres gained more than any other side.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Manly’s kickers must place their long kicks well because Panthers fullback Lachlan Coote is one of the best kick-returners in the Telstra Premiership. Coote ranks second in the NRL for kick-return metres this season – behind only Brisbane’s Josh Hoffman – with 801 metres from 70 runs at 11.4 metres per run.

Danger Sign: It will be interesting to see if Michael Jennings ends up taking his place in the Penrith line-up this weekend, but either way the Sea Eagles can expect their right-side defence to be tested. The Panthers heavily favour their left-side attack, with 18 tries scored on that side of the field in 2012 compared to just six in the middle and seven on the right. This is also Manly’s weak side defensively – they have conceded a worrying 16 tries on that edge.

Lachlan Coote v Brett Stewart: Much will depend on how Brett Stewart pulls up after State of Origin I but there is little doubt that these two men are key figures in their respective sides’ attacking strategies. Coote is particularly important for the Panthers, who have struggled to score points this season and rely heavily on his support play and ability to follow the football. Stewart, meanwhile, has long been the target man for Manly’s set plays and boasts a remarkable try-scoring rate of 116 tries in 146 NRL games.

Where It Will Be Won: The kicking games of these two sides will be telling on Sunday. Manly have led the way when it comes to their long-kicking game this season, making more metres than any other side, however they are also up against a highly effective side when it comes to the kick-return. This would be a bad week for them to drop their bundle. Notably, the Panthers have ranked among the top short-kicking sides over the past two seasons, thanks largely to the accurate kicking of Luke Walsh, but they have struggled to repeat the dose in 2012.

The History: Played 76; Sea Eagles 49, Panthers 26, drawn 1. Manly hold a 21-16 advantage in clashes at Centrebet Stadium and have prevailed in four of their past five clashes including three wins in a row leading into this one.

The Last Time They Met: Manly proved far too good for a shocking Penrith outfit in Round 6 this year – scoring five tries to none and keeping the visitors scoreless in a 30-0 win that came despite the absence of Brett and Glenn Stewart, Kieran Foran and Tony Williams.

Leading 8-0 at half-time thanks to Jamie Buhrer’s solo try in the 26th minute and two goals to co-captain Jamie Lyon, the Sea Eagles stormed home with four second-half tries thanks largely to a starring performance from halfback Daly Cherry-Evans.

The Panthers were still in the hunt when they returned to the field after half-time but their mission quickly became much harder when Kevin Kingston spilled a pass on just the second tackle after the restart and David Williams crossed out wide from the ensuing set to make it 12-0.

A second Lyon penalty goal extended their lead to 14-0, a lead they held until the 68th minute when a late rush saw the scoreline blow out. Steve Matai touched down first after latching onto a Cherry-Evans grubber, Williams scored his second thanks again to great lead-up work from the No.7 and Anthony Watmough put the icing on the cake after Cherry-Evans kicked ahead twice in the lead-up.

Penrith made 348 tackles to Manly’s 276 and completed just 68 per cent of their sets to slump to their fourth loss of the season.

Cherry-Evans produced nine tackle-breaks and three try assists for the home side, while Kingston made 52 tackles for the Panthers.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Brenden Wood; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.

The Way We See It: Penrith have struggled for cohesion and consistency this season, while after a rough period with injury, Manly is looking ominous as they return to full strength. It’s hard to see the Panthers having enough firepower to stun the premiers this week. Manly by eight points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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