Penrith Panthers v Canberra Raiders
It’s do-or-die for the enigmatic, tipster-unfriendly Raiders who must take down Penrith at the foot of the Blue Mountains if they are to keep their 2012 premiership dream alive.
Meanwhile the 15th-placed Panthers need a late surge to guarantee they avoid the wooden spoon, with plenty of players on notice and needing to impress Ivan Cleary if they are to hang onto their jerseys for 2013.
The form of these two sides could not be more contrasting: Canberra delivered top-four aspirants Brisbane a huge blow winning 28-12 in the nation’s capital last week, while Penrith succumbed to Melbourne – their sixth loss from their past eight games – in a 40-point hammering that revived the Storm’s campaign after five previous defeats.
However, it’s tough to predict which Raiders unit will turn up: remarkably since Round 14 the Green Machine have run hot and cold week to week, leaving their fans and coach David Furner truly perplexed. In that time they have defeated the Knights, lost to the Cowboys, turned that around with victory over the Dragons, smashed the Storm, succumbed to the Titans, savaged the Sharks, were blitzed by the Knights (in a return meeting) before blindsiding the Broncos. Exciting yes… but not the sort of stability required to travel deep into the semi-finals should they progress.
Clearly they need to win to stay relevant – given the logjam of wannabe semi-finalists jostling for the last available place in the top eight a defeat would almost certainly bring down the curtain on their season.
In roster news Ivan Cleary has made a couple of changes to the Panthers’ line-up, with David Simmons rejoining the squad on the wing at the expense of Travis Robinson and Matt Robinson elevated to the starting line-up in the second row, with Cameron Ciraldo shifting to lock and Nigel Plum benched. Danny Galea and Dayne Weston are new faces on the interchange.
Meanwhile David Furner has named an unchanged 17, adding Jarrad Kennedy and Bronson Harrison to form an extended interchange.
Watch Out Panthers: Raiders five-eighth Josh McCrone is among illustrious company when it comes to helping team-mates steam through gaps – he has 17 line-break assists to his name, the fourth-most in the comp behind superstars Thurston, Cronk and Marshall. In particular he’s forged great partnerships with Jarrod Croker and Reece Robinson who have tallied 14 and 10 line busts respectively. If the Panthers allow McCrone time to plot the punch line could be a killer.
Raiders props Dave Shillington and Dane Tilse built a huge platform for their side in the win over the Broncos last week, ploughing out a combined 35 hit-ups for 297 metres of territory. Throw in the 22 runs and 172 metres from lock Shaun Fensom and it’s clear the Raiders have the potential to steamroll the Panthers who concede the sixth-most metres each game (1364).
Penrith’s kickers often get flustered into making errors when pressured. They’ve booted the ball out on the full on an NRL-high eight occasions to date. If the Raiders defenders get up into the face of Luke Walsh in the opening exchanges they can dominate field position.
Danger Sign: If the Panthers are trailing at halftime the home fans are bound to feel more than a little nervous – that’s because they have lost 10 of 11 games when behind on the scoreboard at the break this season.
Watch Out Raiders: Brisbane were unable to exploit this weakness last week but expect the Panthers to target the Raiders’ right edge. Canberra have leaked 45 tries through their left-edge defence, easily the most in the league.
Penrith have thrown caution to the wind in regards to offloads in the past three weeks. They average the fourth-fewest offloads in the comp (nine) but threw the ball around like a hot potato in their wins against the Roosters and Sharks, as well as their loss to the Storm. In those three matches they averaged 15 offloads per game – expect that trend to continue given the Raiders concede the fourth-most offloads (almost 12 per game). Clint Newton (24 offloads) will be the promoter in the forwards, while new five-eighth Lachlan Coote is capable of creating problems in the backs.
Coote has been a success in the No.6 since shifting there after Travis Burns’ suspension three weeks ago. He’s made a try assist in each of his two games and shown an ability to run and pass at the line.
The Raiders should make a special effort to prevent the ball from getting to Panthers interchange Matt Robinson – that’s because he leads the league in least touches required for every try scored (14.3).
Danger Sign: If the Raiders are forced to defend for long periods close to their try line. Canberra’s goal-line defence has been abysmal in 2012 – they’ve conceded 57 tries from within 10 metres of their line, 12 more than the next most vulnerable side Parramatta.
Michael Gordon v Josh Dugan: Playing just his fourth game in 2012 – and his fourth last in Panthers colours – Gordon is capable of ripping the Raiders to shreds with his devastating running game which yielded the second best average metre mark in the comp last season (179 metres). Meanwhile Dugan destroyed the Broncos with two tries last week in a determined display that included 12 tackle busts and 171 metres. Dugan is one of the most punishing running fullbacks in the comp, averaging around six tackle-breaks every 80 minutes.
Where It Will Be Won: Through the speedy outside backs. Canberra will utilise Jarrod Croker, Reece Robinson, Blake Ferguson and Josh Dugan at every opportunity. Croker and Robinson have combined for 26 tries down the left edge, while Ferguson has nine line-breaks and seven tries on the right side of the field. Meanwhile expect winger Sandor Earl to ramp up a notch after being cut loose by the Panthers mid-season. Penrith’s attack will be mounted via fullback Gordon, left centre Michael Jennings (eight tries and 11 line-breaks) and winger Josh Mansour who ranks third in the comp for average running metres (164) and busts through more than six tackles per game.
The History: Played 30; Panthers 30, Raiders 29, drawn 1. Penrith have won five of the past eight clashes between the sides including the past two. Penrith enjoy a 16-10 record at Centrebet Stadium, with one match drawn.
The Last Time They Met: Penrith defeated Canberra 19-18 at Canberra Stadium in Round 25 last year.
The Panthers drew first blood when halfback Luke Walsh finished off a long-range raid for a 6-nil lead after four minutes. However Canberra levelled proceedings when Josh McCrone charged over on the right edge with 20 minutes gone, before skipper Alan Tongue increased their lead to six points three minutes from halftime – Tongue’s try off a spilled bomb came in his final career game at his Canberra base.
It took the Panthers just two minutes to get back into the game after halftime, with Brad Tighe outleaping Reece Robinson to snare Luke Walsh’s pinpoint cross-field bomb for a 12-all scoreline.
David Simmons added to the Panthers’ tally eight minutes later when he crossed in the left corner and Luke Walsh gave the visitors a seven point buffer when he potted a field goal with 11 minutes left on the clock.
Raiders interchange Mick Picker gave home fans a glimmer of hope when he pounced on a deflected grubber kick to score 90 seconds from fulltime… but that was the end of the road for the Raiders.
Halfback Walsh was Penrith’s MVP with two try assists, while winger Simmons carved out 172 metres on the night.
Josh Dugan delivered a customary penetrative contribution, running 20 times for 168 metres, while halfback Sam Williams added two try assists.
Canberra were unlucky not to get the result: they completed six full sets more than Penrith, missed fewer tackles and made fewer errors. However, Penrith’s attack conjured more with the possession they had, making three line-breaks to the home side’s one.
Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Luke Phillips; Video Referee – Paul Mellor.
The Way We See It: The venue could hold the key here: five of the Raiders’ nine wins this year have come away from home, while the Panthers have banked just three home victories from 10 attempts. That statistic and the burning motivation of a semi-finals berth should be enough to secure the Raiders the win. Canberra by six points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats