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Panthers v Titans
Centrebet Stadium
Sunday 3pm

The NRL’s big improvers in 2013 have it all to play for on Sunday afternoon as they clash in a match that will ultimately either boost their finals credentials or have experts predicting another slide down the premiership ladder.

Last year, the Panthers and the Titans were two of the NRL’s biggest disappointments. Penrith finishing 15th and the Gold Coast 11th in a year both teams’ supporters are better off forgetting… but so far this year there’s plenty of reason for optimism.

In three games this season, the Panthers have punished the Raiders, and pushed title contenders the Wests Tigers and South Sydney for most of the match. Signs are emerging that Ivan Cleary’s new-look team is developing a more determined fighting spirit in 2013.

The Titans, meanwhile, are also on the rise after their annus horribilis in 2012 that ultimately had the club in the headlines at various stages of the season for all the wrong reasons. This year, though, John Cartwright’s men look to have turned a corner on and off the field. Under the new on-field leadership of co-captains Nate Myles and Greg Bird, the Titans have emerged as arguably the competition’s title threat that no-one saw coming. With one of the NRL’s toughest forward packs, the Gold Coast have already pushed the Sharks the full 80, dominated the Raiders and stunned the Sea Eagles in just three rounds.

For the Panthers, coach Ivan Cleary has named a very similar side to the one that played South Sydney last Sunday. Cameron Ciraldo has been slated to start at lock with Nathan Smith named on a six-man bench that also includes Matt Robinson.

The Titans, meanwhile, have named both lock Ashley Harrison (concussion) and centre Brad Takairangi (hamstring) in the starting side despite suffering injuries in last weekend’s win over Manly, with utility Luke O’Dwyer and centre/winger Steve Michaels included on an extended six-man bench. If Harrison and Takairangi are both cleared to play, it will mark the fourth week in a row that the Titans have been able to field the same 17-man squad.

Watch Out Panthers: The Titans’ new-look attacking department is just starting to gel – and the signs are promising for coach Cartwright. Following the departure of long-term playmaker Scott Prince, ‘Carty’ handed journeyman playmaker Albert Kelly the No.7 jersey… and it’s worked a treat so far in 2013. Alongside Aidan Sezer, ‘AK’ is starting to weave his magic – and opponents are starting to realise why he’s been so highly regarded. Behind a big, powerful and uncompromising forward pack, there are plenty of opportunities for Kelly and Sezer to shine – and so far in 2013 they’ve already contributed four try assists, two line-breaks, two tries and a line-break assist. And they’re just getting started; don’t forget last week the Rabbitohs put eight tries on the Panthers – could this be the week the Titans duo hit top gear?

Watch Out Titans: The pushover Panthers are gone. Last year Penrith lost nine matches by 14 points or more – this year they’re a more determined, more committed and more competitive bunch and their results have supported this. They belted the Raiders in Round 1 (32-10) before a 10-point loss to the Wests Tigers and a 12-point loss to the Rabbitohs in games that could’ve ended in blowouts. Cleary has a dedicated bunch, and the likes of Sika Manu, James Segeyaro and Wes Naiqama have shown the team will be more than competitive this season. They’re an exciting bunch, too – last week Penrith recorded 10 line-breaks against Souths, the most by any team in 2013.

Plays To Watch: James Segeyaro scheming from dummy-half – in three games he’s already scored two tries and cracked or helped to crack the defence three times; Aidan Sezer’s lethal left foot delivering laser-like aerial opportunities for wingers David Mead and Kevin Gordon; Sika Manu chancing his arm and taking on the Titans close to their line (he’s scored three tries in as many matches for his new club in 2013… after scoring just three all last season!); Luke Walsh spinning the Steeden wide and early to give his on-song outside men attacking raids early in the set.

Key Match-Up: McKendry and Grant v Douglas and Myles. The big boppers in the middle third of the field lay the platform for their teams – and their progress (or lack thereof) will influence what their outside men are capable of achieving in this clash. With three particularly young halves (Panther Tom Humble and Titans Sezer and Kelly), the prop-forwards battle is going to prove crucial. 

So far this season Grant (116 metres per game) and McKendry (123 metres per game) have done an admirable job, but how will they fare against the experience and class of Myles (120 metres per game) and Douglas (78 metres per game)? The Titans possess a world-class forward pack, with Bailey, Bird, Harrison and Taylor other players who could wreak havoc if the Panthers’ forwards don’t lay a solid foundation.

Where It Will Be Won: Defence v attack. The Titans are a gritty defensive unit while the Panthers have revealed themselves to be a free-flowing, chance-your-arm attacking unit. Scoring points hasn’t been a problem for the Panthers in 2013, crossing for a combined 82 points in their three matches. Conversely the Titans have confirmed they are a team that backs their defence to win matches. In their three matches they have kept their opposition to just 26 points. 

Perhaps the make-or-break battle is on the Panthers’ right side of the field – where Wes Naiqama (eight missed tackles, third most by a centre) and David Simmons reside – where numerous four-pointers have been created but conceded too. When the ball gets to them in attack – or defence – expect something to happen!

The History: Played 8; Penrith 4, Gold Coast 3, drawn 1. At Centrebet Stadium, the Panthers hold another slim advantage, winning two of the three clashes. 

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials –  Ricky MacFarlane & Chris Butler; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Jared Maxwell.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 6pm. 

The Way We See It: The Panthers and Titans are much improved teams in 2013, but the Gold Coast are arguably in better form – and we see that having a positive influence on their performance in this clash. With a bigger, better and more aggressive forward pack, expect their confident young halves to shine once again. The tighter the contest the more likely a Gold Coast victory is, too. They’re proving quality grafters. Titans by six points.

*Statistics: NRL Stats

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