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Penrith Panthers v Parramatta Eels
Centrebet Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Pride goes on the line in this battle of Sydney’s outer west – not to mention two very valuable competition points that could well end up determining which of these underperforming sides gets lumbered with the Telstra Premiership’s unwanted ‘timber cutlery’ at season’s end.

While it was accepted before the season kicked off that Penrith would undergo a transition year in Ivan Cleary’s first 12 months at the helm, with a fringe semi-finals expectation at best, Penrith have nonetheless fired short of the mark.

The negative verdict is far stronger for Parramatta, who many expected would thunder back into semi-finals calculations on the back of new playmaker recruit Chris Sandow.

Sadly, combined the sides have notched a paltry six wins from 27 matches played and only the most enthusiastic fan would still hold hope of either unit figuring past Round 26.

Already the mathematical calculations are daunting. The Eels need to win all of their remaining 11 games to finish on 30 competition points, which will be right around the mark or possibly two points shy of the semi-finals cut-off zone. Meanwhile should the Panthers get on a roll and remain unbeaten they’d finish on 32 points. Clearly, another loss for either would pretty much draw the curtain on their season.

Penrith were mostly terrible in racking up their eighth loss from their past 10 games against the Titans last week, with 15 errors releasing the pressure valve at key moments.

Parramatta had little to enthuse about on fulltime against the Rabbitohs, registering their seventh loss in eight games. They conceded five line-breaks and missed 32 tackles in another largely forgettable 80 minutes for their fans. The vitality that punctuated their win over the Sharks in Round 13 was sadly missing – they need to recapture that feeling soon or else more losses are inevitable.

In team changes, Panthers fullback Lachlan Coote has escaped the axe after his fumble-fingers effort last week, with Josh Mansour returning to the side on the wing at the expense of Sandor Earl, while Geoff Daniela returns at centre for Brad Tighe.

Luke Lewis returns at lock after failing to back up from Origin II, with Ryan Simpkins hitting the interchange.

Reni Maitua’s one-game suspension sees Ryan Morgan fill in at centre for the Eels. Their only other tweak sees Taniela Lasalo join an extended interchange.

If the Eels are to bounce back this week they’ll need to shake a gorilla off their back – they’ve won just one of their past 16 away games.

Watch Out Panthers: Penrith may hold the advantage over the Eels in recent clashes at Centrebet Stadium, winning two of three since 2009, but during that time they’ve flinched every time Jarryd Hayne has grabbed the football. The Eels’ No.1 grows another leg at the foot of the mountains – in those past three match-ups he contributed a whopping eight try assists, three line-breaks, two tries, 18 tackle-breaks, six offloads and four line-break assists as the Eels have averaged 30 points each game. Hayne is averaging a try assist and line-break assist every outing in 2012, and has banked seven tries and eight line-breaks to date.

If it weren’t for Chris Sandow’s accurate kicking game the Eels would be in even worse shape: Sandow is booting to open space 61 per cent of the time, the second best rate in the NRL.

Danger Sign: Has a focus on limiting their mistakes hurt the Eels? Parramatta are showing excellent discipline to rank third for the fewest errors each week (10.3) – but the stats show it has come at a cost in attack: they make the fewest tackle-breaks (26), and second-fewest line-breaks (3.7) and offloads (eight). With nothing to lose and everything to gain it may be time to ditch the old game plan and build some confidence by throwing the Steeden around and promoting plenty of second-phase play. That’s not good news for the Panthers, who concede the sixth-most offloads.   

Watch Out Eels: Okay, we know he’s an easy target, and we don’t want to harp on about it – but Chris Sandow really needs to lift. For starters, we’d like to see him put a spring in his step and jog around the park when he’s not figuring, instead of walking from play to play. Just as enthusiasm can be infectious, so too can disinterest be. But it’s when you quantify what Sandow does with the ball, based on the number of receives he makes, that you get the true indication of his lack of oomph. Sandow makes a line-break every 203 receives – among the worst returns by a No.7 in 2012 (Shaun Johnson is the best, busting the line open every 70 touches). And Sandow’s 121 touches are the third-most required per try assist from a No.7. Unless Sandow catches fire soon the Eels will continue to struggle to dominate matches.  

Down the other end of the park Michael Jennings is poised for his 50th career win (from 115 appearances) and will feed off the memory of his hat-trick of tries against the Eels at Centrebet Stadium three years ago.

Danger Sign: Lachlan Coote has been down on form and in the bad books with coach Ivan Cleary of late but he’s too good a player to remain in the doldrums. If Chris Sandow isn’t on target kicking to open space Coote can do some damage carting the ball back – last time these sides met he scored a try, ran 18 times and banked 170 metres of territory. He’s still one of the most elusive No.1s in the NRL, making as many tackle-breaks as Greg Ingis (53).

Tim Grant v Tim Mannah: Last year Mannah played all three State of Origin games for New South Wales, this year Grant has his jersey. On form Grant certainly deserves his call-up – he’s a true, no-frills, front row workhorse, averaging 17 hit-ups, 144 metres and 26 tackles in 50 minutes of game time. But you can bet Mannah will lift this week and better his current stats which read 12 hit-ups and 112 metres in 39 minutes.

Where It Will Be Won: This is a battle for pride – and perhaps a few players may also be slogging it out for their careers. You can be certain both teams’ coaches will be keeping notes on who is playing upbeat and who is simply going through the motions. It will be evident to fans watching at the ground or on TV, too. The side that turns up with the right attitude and encourages each other throughout the 80 minutes should be the side that sings the team song in the dressing sheds after full-time.    

The History: Played 84; Eels 51, Panthers 32, drawn 1. The Panthers have won five of the past eight clashes including the past three straight – but the Eels boast a good record at Centrebet Stadium, winning 21 of 41 games, with one draw.

The Last Time They Met: The Panthers crushed the Eels, who were without star fullback Jarryd Hayne due to injury, 39-6 at Parramatta Stadium back in Round 4.

Four unanswered first-half tries plus a Travis Burns field-goal on the stroke of halftime catapulted the Panthers to a 23-nil lead at the break. The mountain men added to their tally shortly after the resumption when Brad Tighe scored and they increased their advantage even further with a smart four-pointer to Travis Burns on the hour.

Reni Maitua saved some face for the home side when he crossed in the 68th minute before Panthers winger Etuate Uaisele bagged his second try of the evening to complete Parramatta’s 80 minutes from hell.

Penrith made nine-line-breaks to the Panthers’ two. They were best-served by Michael Jennings and Travis Burns, who each contributed a pair of try assists and made a line-break.

Chris Sandow threw the final pass for Maitua’s try for the Eels, while captain Nathan Hindmarsh busted his guts in defence, making 56 tackles.

While Hindmarsh’s commitment to felling the opposition could not be faulted, the same could not be said for his team-mates: the Eels tallied an unacceptable 32 missed tackles throughout the contest.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Adam Reid; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.

The Way We See It: Can we toss a coin? Seriously, attempting to select the winner of this clash is simply guess work. The overall stats of the Panthers are better than the Eels, plus they’re playing at home. That gets them the nod, just. Penrith by two points.  

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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