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Penrith Panthers v Warriors
Centrebet Stadium
Monday 5.30pm
(*Long weekend early kick-off)

Tim Grant’s selection for the NSW Blues side for Origin II comes as bittersweet joy for Panthers fans who were already resigned to missing strike centre Michael Jennings and creative lock Luke Lewis for Monday afternoon’s crucial clash with the enigmatic Warriors at the foot of the mountains.

After a horror start to the season Penrith have bounced back to some degree with a pleasing past month of footy that’s featured wins over St George Illawarra and premiers Manly, plus a nail-biting two-point loss to the Cowboys in Townsville. After banking their first bye of the season last week they enter this clash in 14th place – but only two wins adrift of the top eight. Clearly, given the congestion of teams outside the finals zone, toppling the Warriors is crucial if they wish to remain in the mix.

It won’t be easy though: the ninth-placed Warriors have been impressive despite chalking up consecutive losses, falling by just two points to the surging Wests Tigers at Leichhardt then leading the Storm 12-nil before being overhauled 22-12 in Auckland last Sunday. Tellingly Origin has not drained them of any talent.

In Panthers team changes coach Ivan Cleary has promoted Dayne Weston to start at prop to cover for Grant, with Ryan Simpkins similarly advancing to the starting side as Lewis’ fill-in at lock. Matt Robinson and Chris Armit are the new faces on the bench.

(Of course, the thing all NRL fans remain in the dark about is whether or not Michael Jennings will find his way back into the Penrith first grade side after Origin – guess we’ll all find out when Cleary names his Round 15 squad next Tuesday, the day before Origin II.)

Meanwhile the Warriors have just one, strengthening change to their unit, with livewire Kevin Locke returning from injury at fullback and Glen Fisiiahi hitting the pine.  

It’s a milestone week for Warriors captain Simon Mannering who edges closer to the most games for the Kiwi-based side: Mannering will equal Wairangi Koopu for the fifth-most appearances (159)

Watch Out Panthers: Shaun Johnson and James Maloney form one of the best attacking halves combinations in the game. They have combined for 21 line-break assists, 15 line-breaks and nine tries to date.

Their last-start victory over Manly showed considerable improvement in attack but Penrith will need to find at least 22 points to be competitive against the Warriors who are ranked fourth for troubling the scoreboard attendant in 2012 (averaging 22.7 per game). Meanwhile the Panthers live way down the other end of the scale, averaging just 16.3 per game (fourth fewest). Worse, Centrebet Stadium has done them no favours, with the side averaging their fewest points at home since 1992 (just 13.9 a game).

Next year Penrith fans will be cheering for Lewis Brown but for now they’ll be hoping he doesn’t inflict too much damage. Brown will enjoy impressing his soon-to-be new coach Cleary, with his strong offloading game (17) sure to be prominent.

Danger Sign: Feleti Mateo cut the Panthers to shreds last time they met, making 18 runs for 143 metres with seven tackle busts and four damaging offloads, and he’ll relish the chance to dominate again. Mateo is in great form and is really starting to increase his second-phase contributions of late (18 offloads).

Watch Out Warriors: Panthers halfback Luke Walsh has a creative kicking game and you can bet he’s done his homework on the Warriors and will have noted their difficulties in defusing short kicks (just 40 per cent – the lowest success rate in the NRL). Walsh can find success targeting Manu Vatuvei on the right side of the field; a giant of a man, Vatuvei is prone to handling errors at times and his confidence can drop away.

Panthers captain Kevin Kingston will lead by example: he has enjoyed a solid opening half to the season, notably averaging the most tackles per game by any Penrith player in NRL history (46.1 per game). In attack he’s averaging a career-best 103.2 receives each week, behind only Cameron Smith and Matt Keating to date.  

Danger Sign: Bill Tupou and Konrad Hurrell should be prepared for plenty of traffic to head their way – the Panthers have scored 20 tries down the left side of the field compared to just eight on the right.

Sam McKendry v Ben Matulino: Two kiwi powerhouses come together with the battle for territory sure to be a factor in determining which side emerges with the win. With team-mate Tim Grant missing McKendry will be pumped for a season-best effort; he’ll likely top his good figures of 12 hit-ups and 108 metres plus 25 tackles. And he’ll need to, given Matulino has been strong up front for the Warriors, adding 114 metres a game.  

Where It Will Be Won: Better-than-average attack. Nothing separates the Panthers and Warriors when it comes to punching holes in opposition defences, so whichever team makes a statement with their running game should emerge with the win. The sides are middle of the NRL pack for line-breaks (Warriors 4.3, Panthers 4.2) and tackle-breaks (Warriors 31, Panthers 30.8).

The History: Played 28; Panthers 14, Warriors 13, drawn 1. The Warriors have won five of the past eight clashes, including the past three in a row. Penrith hold a 7-6 advantage in games at Centrebet Stadium, with one draw. However, the Warriors have won the past two games at the foot of the mountains – and have lost only three of their past 11 games against Penrith.

The Last Time They Met: The Warriors defeated the Panthers 26-12 at Centrebet Stadium in Round 24 last year.

Penrith shot themselves in the foot in the first 40 minutes when they allowed the Warriors through for three tries to trail 16-nil at halftime. After a scoreless opening quarter, Shaun Johnson bagged first points in the 23rd minute when he received a pass from Kevin Locke 20 metres out from his goalposts and then evaded and outpaced a handful of Panthers chasers to score a dazzling 80-metre solo try.

The Warriors extended their lead just three minutes later when Panthers centre Michael Jennings spilled the ball after being hit by a crunching tackle on his goal-line, with Ben Matulino cleaning up the spoils for the easiest of tries.  

Adding to the Panthers’ misery, the Warriors crossed for a try on the stroke of halftime against the run of play – with just seconds remaining on the clock the Panthers spread the ball wide to the right but their last-ditch raid went horribly wrong when Warriors fullback Locke retrieved Brad Tighe’s speculative chip chick and raced 60 metres to cross adjacent to the goalposts.

Tries to Penrith’s David Simmons (43rd minute) and Tighe (55th minute), plus a penalty goal bridged the scoreline to 18-12 with 15 minutes remaining, before a penalty goal to the Warriors and a Manu Vatuvei try in the 75th minute sealed the win for the visitors.

It was certainly the one that got a way for the Panthers, who made more line-breaks on the night (5-2) and defended stoutly (just 21 missed tackles to the Warriors’ 36).

Michael Jennings, playing fullback for the Panthers, made 17 runs and 173 metres, while Shaun Johnson made 141 metres in the No.7 for the Warriors, also adding a try assist and a line-break.

Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Gavin West; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.

The Way We See It: They may have won their past two games at Centrebet Stadium but the Panthers’ 2-5 home record is the equal worst in the comp. They’ve gone into battle without Jennings and Lewis before but losing Grant as well could be too much for them to counter – especially given the Warriors’ roster and their impressive record against the Panthers. Warriors by eight points.       

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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