Last season the Panthers' makeover proved very much a work in progress as new coach Ivan Cleary struggled to get his team to gel in a year that generated just eight wins. The team ended the season in 15th position, with Cleary continually tinkering with his new roster and ultimately utilising the services of a league-high 33 players across the season. The team finished at the bottom of several key stats categories, including points scored (17 per match – 15th) and tries scored (three per game – equal last).
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Panthers v Raiders
The Raiders, on the other hand, achieved more than what most experts imagined possible in 2012. Down key playmaker Terry Campese (knee injury) once again, the Raiders team were swept up in self-belief at the end of last season, winning 10 of their final 14 matches to overcome the odds and make it to week two of the finals. They played an exciting brand of football, especially at the end of the year – scoring exhilarating tries from almost everywhere on the field.
This season the Panthers unveil a new-look line-up. Gone are long-term clubmen including Michael Jennings, Michael Gordon and Luke Lewis – some seemingly unwanted at the foot of the mountains – with a new crop of talent arriving at Penrith. Some of the new faces include former Warriors utility Lewis Brown, outside back Dean Whare, former Knight Wes Naiqama and old Cowboy James Segeyaro. The fresh blood gives Panthers fans some genuine hope of improved results in 2013.
Conversely the Raiders had very little talent depart and arrive in the off-season. It means the stability – and the momentum – developed in the 2012 season remains this year. David Furner's charges are some of the most exciting and electric young talents in the game too – it all adds up to very good signs for Raiders fans in 2013.
The Panthers finished their three trials undefeated (two wins and a draw) and have a healthy roster. Interestingly, coach Cleary has named Whare at fullback, shifting former No.1 Josh Mansour to the wing. New recruits Brown, Manu and Naiqama also make the starting line-up.
The Raiders also finished the pre-season undefeated, with wins against Melbourne, Wyong and Canterbury. However, they have not named Josh Dugan (lip infection), Jarrod Croker (recovery from knee surgery), Glen Buttriss (ankle) and Terry Campese (knee – indefinite), but club insiders tell us Croker and Dugan are still good chances to play. It's still a strong squad though, with Jack Wighton – a nine-game NRL rookie – the only included player unproven over an entire season.
Watch Out Panthers: There's arguably no more exciting – and dangerous – backline in the competition. The Raiders' 2012 late-season winning streak came on the back of the athleticism and opportunistic ways of their beefy, brawny and ballsy backs – they are an immense headache for opponents with speedsters like Reece Robinson (16 tries in 2012), Sandor Earl (eight tries), Blake Ferguson (13 tries) and Edrick Lee (six tries) on their books.
And they are prepared to chance their hand, too. If the Panthers' forwards don't limit Canberra's mid-field progress, expect Furner's backs to run riot – they're scoring machines and finished fourth in points scored (22.9 per game) and third in tries scored (4.1 per game) last season.
Watch Out Raiders: There's a new Panthers line-up for 2013 and all previous performances simply need to be discounted. There's no way to size up this Penrith team, as it bears no resemblance to last year's team. It's the great unknown for Furner – and for Cleary and Panthers fans, too.
Guesswork may be the only way for Furner to develop a game-plan… and guesswork is dangerous. In fact, only eight players remain in their position from Penrith's round one team last season.
Could the new-look squad surprise all and form a team that is capable of tussling with the best in the NRL? Listen to the experts and you'll hear a definite 'no' – but there's no true way of judging until we see them perform as a new squad on Sunday.
Plays To Watch: Panthers playmaker Lachlan Coote lining-up a 40/20 – his accurate left foot was responsible for two in 2012; Raiders speedsters running angled lines off Josh McCrone – the Canberra five-eighth was responsible for 23 try assists last season; Long-striding Raider Ferguson and lightning-fast teammate Lee in open space; Big boppers Tim Grant and Sam McKendry clashing mid-field with the Raiders' props David Shillington and Dane Tilse.
Key Match-Up: Lachlan Coote v Josh McCrone. They mightn't be the biggest-name playmakers in the competition, but No.6s Coote and McCrone have a huge influence on the performance of their teams. Sure, a lot rests with the time and space their forwards provide, but how the five-eighths use their opportunities will make or break this clash. Outside some scheming yet under-rated halves in Luke Walsh and Sam Williams respectively, Coote and McCrone have big decisions to make.
Last season Coote struggled to dominate, creating a total of 27 tries, line-breaks and line-break assists in 24 matches as his team all but shuddered to a halt. He and his squad will be desperate to improve on all of that in this clash – especially with Blake Austin, a former state sprinter who the Panthers signed to a $700,000 deal last year and who is viewed as a long-term NRL star, in the wings.
McCrone, meanwhile, has similar goals of consolidating his position with Canberra club captain Terry Campese just weeks away from a return. McCrone enjoyed a spectacular 2012, with 23 try assists, 25 line-break assists and seven line-breaks. The 2012 Coaches' Award winner at the Raiders will be desperate to prove he is the long-term halves answer… and it all starts in this match.
Where It Will Be Won: Points. Last season there was a huge difference between these teams' combined points scored and conceded – and the Raiders enter the clash with a huge statistical advantage if 2012's form is anything to go by.
Last season the Raiders averaged 22.9 points, compared with the Panthers' 17. The Panthers conceded more points, too – 24 points compared with Canberra’s record of 22.7. That’s a total advantage of 7.2 points per game in favour of the Raiders!
The History: Played 62; Panthers 30, Raiders 30, draws 2. The Raiders have enjoyed playing at Centrebet, claiming victories in four of the past seven encounters, including last year's 20-10 win in round 23… although the Panthers do have a statistical advantage in Penrith, having won 16 of the venue's 28 matches.
Last Time They Met: A glut of early possession wasn't enough for the Panthers to assert their dominance against the Raiders in round 23 last season.
The Panthers scored the first try through Josh Mansour after only four minutes, but from then the tide turned the visiting Raiders' way. Just six minutes into the second half, with the Panthers leading 6-0 after dominating possession and field position early on, a Canberra bomb appeared to be knocked on near the Panthers' try line… only for the video referee to award a try to Jarrod Croker. The Raiders scored a further two tries to secure a 20-10 victory, with five-eighth Josh McCrone earning three Dally M points.
The Raiders dominated the back half of the game on the back of a superior 54-46 possession count as well as fewer total errors (eight to the Panthers' 11). The ball control from the visitors also forced Penrith to complete an additional 55 tackles (376 to 321).
Despite Michael Gordon running for a game-high 211 metres, Canberra were able to out-muscle and outclass the Panthers with the visitors recording a superior completion rate (34/42 compared with 28/37) that ultimately guided them to victory.
Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Michael Wise & Jason Walsh; Video Referees – Jared Maxwell & Steve Chiddy.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 2pm.
The Way We See It: It's too brave for us to go all out and predict a victory for the home side. The Raiders just have too much strike power for the Panthers – and they've had a year to gel on the new-look Penrith side, too. Tip Canberra to win, but as we all know round one has a habit of springing some big surprises. This could be one such occasion… but odds are the Raiders should prevail. Canberra by eight points.