Broncos v Panthers preview

Brisbane Broncos v Penrith Panthers
Suncorp Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Having looked destined for a top-four finish for most of the year, Brisbane’s season now comes down to this final round game against the in-form Panthers.

Six losses in a row have the Broncos’ finals hopes teetering on the edge although, despite their dramatic drop in form, their destiny remains in their own hands. Beat Penrith and they’re in; lose and they risk having their spot stolen should other results work against them.

There was a time, of course, when this game would almost certainly have been an easy two competition points for the Broncos, but how times have changed. The State of Origin period left Brisbane low on energy and although they have produced some better performances of late – namely in narrow losses to Canterbury and Melbourne – there is no doubt their confidence has taken a battering. Not only is beating the Panthers this week vital to securing a finals berth, it’s absolutely essential if they are any hope of continuing past the opening week of the finals.

The Panthers, on the other hand, have finally found some positives to end what has otherwise been a disastrous season.

While news of Luke Lewis’ cancer scare was far from the way they wanted to farewell their former captain before he heads to Cronulla in 2013, on the field there are signs of better times ahead with four wins from their past six and two in a row leading into their final game of the year.

The return of fullback Michael Gordon from injury and the surprisingly successful move to five-eighth by Lachlan Coote has sparked the Penrith attack into action, with 36 points put past the Gold Coast last weekend. What a shame that Gordon is also off to the Sharks next season.

And so it comes down to one side playing for a finals berth yet battling a crisis in confidence, against another with little to play for but bristling with confidence.

Can the Broncos come to the party when it matters most?

Coach Anthony Griffin has reinstated his original spine this week with Josh Hoffman returning to his favoured fullback role, Corey Norman back to five-eighth and Ben Hunt dropping to the bench.

Dale Coley takes Hoffman’s wing spot in his return match from a fractured leg, while in the forwards veteran Petero Civoniceva is into the starting side for his Suncorp farewell with Ben Te’o on the bench.

Penrith have reinvested in the 17 who downed the Gold Coast last week.

A home game against Penrith is a fitting way for Civoniceva to play his last regular season match, given that between the two clubs he has enjoyed 166 wins with 166 different team-mates.

It will also be a special night for Andrew McCullough who plays his 100th NRL game. McCullough boasts an interesting career stat – he was the first ever NRL player born in the 1990s.

Watch Out Broncos: Brisbane’s right-side defenders can expect to be targeted this weekend because Penrith love nothing more than throwing the ball out to their left-hand edge. The Panthers have scored 39 tries on their left this season compared with just 16 on their right – and their new left-side combination of Michael Jennings and Josh Mansour looks particularly dangerous after the pair tore the Gold Coast apart last weekend.

Danger Sign: The Broncos must be wary when it comes to kicking on the last tackle because they have had more kicks charged down in 2012 than any other team. Brisbane has had 20 kicks charged down this season at almost one per game.

Watch Out Panthers: Brisbane are the masters of the aerial attack, ranking first in the NRL for both the number of bombs (78) and mid-field bombs (41) put up in 2012. And they should look to the mid-field bomb as a key weapon this week because the Panthers rank 15th when it comes to defusing these kicks with just 67 per cent successfully caught.

Danger Sign: The Panthers must keep a close eye on Brisbane’s dummy-half running which remains a real feature of their game. Brisbane rank second for line-breaks from dummy-half in 2012 (with 10) and third for most dummy-half tries (with eight).

Ben Hannant v Tim Grant: It’s State of Origin all over again with Brisbane’s Queensland-dominated pack up against boom NSW youngster Tim Grant. Hannant has been leading the way up front for Brisbane this season and alongside the likes of Petero Civoniceva knows exactly what it takes to succeed at this time of year. Grant too has been exceptional for the Panthers; he began the season by running for a career-high 202 metres against the Bulldogs and hasn’t looked back.

Where It Will Be Won: The key position players have endured vastly different fortunes of late. With Michael Gordon at the back and Coote at No.6, Penrith seem to have found a combination that works and are asking plenty of questions of their opponents. Brisbane, on the other hand, have stagnated with the ball in hand – prompting coach Anthony Griffin to move Ben Hunt to five-eighth, Corey Norman to fullback and Josh Hoffman to the wing. It didn’t work and Griffin has reverted to his original plan this week with Hoffman at the back and Norman in the halves.

The History: Played 44; Broncos 28, Storm 15, drawn 1. Brisbane hold an 8-5 record at Suncorp but very little has split these sides in recent times with three wins apiece in their past six meetings. Only twice before has Brisbane lost seven consecutive matches – the last time they did so, in 2006, they went on to win the competition.

The Last Time They Met: It’s been well over a year since these two last went head to head – Round 10 last year in fact – and it was a superb performance from Penrith in the week in which Phil Gould was appointed as coaching director that saw them score an impressive 33-10 win.

It was a tough night out for the Broncos, who welcomed back their considerable State of Origin contingent only to lose centre Justin Hodges to a hamstring tear early in the opening half. Penrith showed no mercy with Luke Lewis stepping past Peter Wallace to barge his way across in the 13th minute. Hooker Kevin Kingston then added his side’s second with a superb dummy-half dart to make it 12-0 after 27 minutes.

Brisbane finally opened their account as the half-time break approached with Wallace dabbing a clever grubber for himself and when Corey Parker added another as the half-time siren sounded it looked like the visitors were set to come storming home in the second stanza.

Instead, it was Penrith that produced a second-half shut-out with 21 unanswered points.

Luke Walsh got the ball rolling when he raced through a huge gap to send Michael Gordon across before Gordon produced his own moment of brilliance as he burst through from a kick return to give Brad Tighe a 50-metre dash to the tryline.

Timana Tahu was next to cross with an angled run off a Gordon inside ball and Tighe scored his second after finishing off a slick backline move to the left.

Walsh capped the win with a last-minute field goal.

In a telling stat, Penrith ran for 1610 metres to Brisbane’s 1193 and completed 84 per cent of sets.

Gordon starred for the home side, making 216 metres, producing two try assists and six tackle-breaks.

Broncos hooker Andrew McCullough worked tirelessly with a game-high 63 tackles.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Adam Gee; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.

The Way We See It: On current form, a Penrith win is very much on the cards here, but if ever Brisbane had the motivation to stop the rot it should be this week. With a finals berth on the line and Petero Civoniceva playing his last game at Suncorp Stadium there can be no excuses for not turning up ready to go. We can see the Broncos getting home narrowly. Brisbane by four points.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports – Delayed 1am.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats