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Warriors v Penrith Panthers
Mt Smart Stadium
Sunday 2pm (NZ time)

Pride goes on the line in Auckland on Sunday as the once-were-Warriors try to salvage some respect from their woeful past month of football that has seen them lose five games straight to plummet out of premiership reckoning.

Their 52-12 capitulation in Townsville last Saturday was the last straw in their finals campaign. Touted as top-four chances entering Round 19, losses to Brisbane, Newcastle, Manly, Cronulla (by 40 points) and North Queensland now see the side languish in 13th position. Already their season post-mortem has begun, with beleaguered coach Brian McClennan admitting his squad will need to find a killer instinct over the off-season if they are to pose a threat in 2013… but for now the plan is to end the season on a high for their fans.

Meanwhile, successive losses to the Storm and Raiders over the past fortnight, coupled with a resurgent Parramatta, have left Penrith in a dogfight with their western Sydney neighbours for this year’s wooden spoon. With tough games ahead against the Gold Coast and Broncos coach Ivan Cleary will be hammering home this vulnerability and demanding some attitude and focus from the outset, in the hope they can further dent the confidence of the home side.

Good news and bad on the personnel front for the home team: Kevin Locke remains sidelined, with Carlos Tuimavave filling in at fullback, while Elijah Taylor returns at lock with Sebastine Ikahihfo benched.   

Meanwhile Travis Robinson will play his second NRL game for Penrith filling in at centre for the suspended Michael Jennings, while Mitch Achurch replaces Ryan Simpkins on the bench.

It’s a big week for both David Simmons and Manu Vatuvei who are poised to make their 150th NRL appearances, while Lachlan Coote needs to make 12 runs to notch 1000 in his career.

Watch Out Warriors: Penrith’s back three of fullback Michael Gordon and wingers David Simmons and Josh Mansour continue to put their side on the front foot out wide. While the Panthers’ forwards struggled to bend the Raiders up front last week this speedy trio dominated on the edges, carving out a combined 581 metres – more than a third of the territory the squad of 17 managed all night. Gordon showed what a loss he’ll be when he shifts to the Sharks at the end of October, busting through a Penrith-record 18 tackle-breaks, making two line-breaks as well as adding a try assist and 211 metres, while Mansour continued his impressive rookie season with a try and nearly 200 running metres. Mansour scored an intercept try the last time these sides met so the Warriors’ playmakers shouldn’t try to get too cute out wide.

Danger Sign: If the Panthers play ad-lib from the opening whistle the Warriors may struggle to contain their second-phase play. Penrith rank middle of the pack for offloads in 2012 with 10 per game – but they’ve boosted that to 17 over the past month, including a whopping 24 offloads against the Raiders, when nine players added multiple offloads. Given the Warriors usurped the Tigers at the weekend as the least effective defensive side in the competition, increasing their missed tackles to 37 per match, the onus will be on the home side to make a concerted effort to shut down the ball carrier early.

Watch Out Panthers: Penrith’s below-average kicking game continues to place the team under pressure. The side averages the fourth-fewest metres off the boot each week – and worse, they register a ‘fail’ mark in kicking to open space, doing so just 43 per cent of the time (second worst in the comp).  

Penrith have conceded the second-highest number of tries in the region 10 metres in from both sidelines (24 on their left, 23 on their right). Expect Shaun Johnson, Feleti Mateo and James Maloney to target these spaces, either on their own or sending centres Lewis Brown and Konrad Hurrell hurtling towards the Panthers’ defenders.

Danger Sign: Shaun Johnson hasn’t been his usual jaunty, confident self of late. If the Warriors’ ‘Magic’ man bounces around like an uncoiled spring in the opening 20 minutes it will be a great sign for the home team. Johnson has notched 17 try assists plus 13 line-breaks and scored 10 tries to date. Adding to those figures here is a given – but by how much?      

Lachlan Coote v James Maloney: This head-to-head battle will go a long way to determining which team leaves with the two competition points. Coote’s playmaking skills should not be underestimated – he’s made a silky transition to the No.6 jersey over the past few weeks, with four try assists and four line-break assists in as many games at pivot. Meanwhile no five-eighth backs himself to bust through an opponent more than Maloney who leads his position for line-breaks (12). His pinpoint attacking kicks are also crucial – in particular look for him to seek out Manu Vatuvei with a high ball towards the left flank.  

Where It Will Be Won: Pride. Unfortunately neither side remains in the running for any silverware in 2012 – although both are still a chance of being left with some timber cutlery should they keep losing. Penrith enter this game in equal last place, while it’s mathematically possible for the Warriors to finish dead last should they drop all three remaining fixtures and finish the season on 20 competition points. You’d think that would be enough to ensure a quality contest.   

The History: Played 29; Warriors 14, Panthers 14, drawn 1. The Warriors have won five of the past eight clashes – including the past four. The Warriors hold a 7-6 advantage at Mt Smart Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: The Warriors defeated the Panthers 30-16 at Centrebet Stadium in Round 14.

The visitors raced to a 12-nil lead inside the opening 20 minutes courtesy of a Manu Vatuvei try double – before the Panthers rallied to score three unanswered tries for shock 16-12 lead at halftime.

The Warriors opened the evening’s scoring in the seventh minute after Lachlan Coote spilled a bomb in his in-goal, with ‘The Beast’ seizing on the spoils for a gift four-pointer. The big winger bagged his second shortly after when he followed through to recover a Shaun Johnson grubber on the left edge.

Panthers fans breathed easier in the 26th minute when Josh Mansour grabbed an intercept to race 80 metres and post the home side’s first points. Hooker Kevin Kingson crossed on the half hour to level the scores, before Geoff Daniela grabbed them the lead after a right-side sweep five minutes from the break.

The Warriors edged ahead in the 53rd minute when Lachlan Coote’s handling woes continued, the fullback spilling a rushed pass from Luke Walsh on the last tackle that was scooped up by Konrad Hurrell for a try against the run of play. James Maloney made it 24-16 with 16 minutes on the clock when he punched through a hole from close range, before Kevin Locke scored under the posts in the final minute of a Feleti Mateo grubber kick assist.

The Warriors built their win on respecting possession throughout the wet night (83 per cent completions) and maximising second-phase play (12 offloads). Their best players were prop Ben Matulino, who powered through 22 hit-ups for 225 metres, and lock Mateo who made 22 carries plus four offloads and two try assists.

Winger Josh Mansour (211 metres, six tackle-breaks) tried hard in a beaten side.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Dave Munro; Sideline Officials – Henry Perenara & Jay Farlow; Video Referee – Pat Reynolds.

The Way We See It: There won’t be much in it although Michael Jennings’ suspension leans us towards the home side – as do the stats. While both teams are among the worst at conceding points (each leaks 24 per game) the Warriors average 22 points scored in 2012, six more than the Panthers. That, plus the desire to try to win back their fans after their horror slump, should be enough to see the Warriors salute. Warriors by 12 points.   

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 12pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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