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Knights v Panthers
Hunter Stadium
Saturday, 5.30pm

Newcastle and Penrith find themselves in vastly different positions five weeks into the 2013 premiership. The Knights, riding high in fourth position, have won three of their five matches, while Penrith have won just one game. Is it too early to say the Panthers’ season is on the line? We think not – we’re labelling this a must-win clash for the men from the foot of the mountains.

The Knights have begun 2013 in promising if not inconsistent fashion. They’ve recorded strong wins against the Raiders, Cowboys and Wests Tigers, on the back of an improving attack that has scored the third-highest number of points thus far. The Panthers, meanwhile, recorded their sole win against Canberra all the way back in Round 1!

Last week both teams performed poorly – the Knights struggling against the Dragons in a real arm-wrestle at Kogarah, while the Panthers were pounded by the Cowboys in Townsville. A victory for either side could right their premiership campaign and prove the catalyst for a push further up the competition ladder – particularly the Panthers who sit in 15th place with the most points conceded (140) so far this season.

Surprisingly, there is only a slight change to the teams that ran out in Round 5: Danny Buderus has been named on the bench for Newcastle, despite being a late withdrawal last Saturday due to back soreness, replacing Korbin Sims who only played 12 minutes against the Dragons; meanwhile the Panthers are unchanged, fielding the 17-man team that lost 30-zip to the Cowboys in Townsville last Saturday night.

Watch Out Knights: The Panthers must still be feeling the pain from their ill-disciplined loss to North Queensland – no doubt their team bus’ back window getting smashed up on entering 1300SMILES Stadium was an omen of things to come! Were there more cracks in the panel of glass, or in the Penrith defensive line? We’re not sure. 

Against the Cowboys the Panthers committed a whopping 15 errors – and they missed a total of 38 tackles. More attention to detail and professionalism is expected from renowned hard taskmaster Ivan Cleary. Could the spray they received from their coach propel them to a better performance this week? We’re predicting so – and Penrith fans are praying for as much, too.

Watch Out Panthers: Newcastle have started season 2013 in superb try-scoring fashion, running up big tallies against the Wests Tigers (42), Cowboys (34) and Raiders (28) – the reason they’re ranked equal third for tries thus far this season. Coupled with the Panthers’ record as the flimsiest defence in the competition – they’re conceding the highest average points (28) and tries (five) – and it’s potentially a recipe for disaster. Especially if Penrith arrive dazed and confused in the opening half, as they did against the Cowboys when they conceded four tries in the first 16 minutes.

Plays To Watch: Newcastle fullback Darius Boyd might be proving blunt in media conferences but he’s sharp at the back for the Knights in 2013 – he was involved in all three of their tries against the Dragons. So much of Newcastle’s attack revolves around him injecting into backline shifts – expect to witness similar plays again on Saturday night that’ll see the ball end up in the hands of Uate, Tahu and co. 

The Panthers, meanwhile, also make use of similar out-the-back plays when they’re at their best – but they utilise the flat option sometimes, too. Against the Raiders in Round 1 and Tigers in Round 2, Sika Manu scored from short passes at the line; but also in Brad Tighe and Wes Naiqama they possess centres that can benefit from wide, early ball.
Expect the Knights to target fullback Dean Whare under the high ball – the Cowboys scored two four-pointers as a result of spilled bombs last week.

Key Match-Up: The one area the Panthers could lay claims to having more strength than their opponents this week is in their centres – Tighe and Naiqama have been threatening in 2013, while Alex McKinnon and Timana Tahu are just finding their feet for Newcastle. In three matches, Tighe has made three line-breaks, while Naiqama has scored two tries, added three line-breaks and 336 metres gained in five matches. 

When compared with McKinnon, who has played just five NRL games at centre across three seasons, and Tahu, who made his 2013 comeback last week in jersey No.18, Penrith fans could feel like they have reason to expect a close contest on the fringes. 

Where It Will Be Won: Whose line will crack first – and most often? 

Last week the Panthers were on the back foot from the word go as the Cowboys ran amok, and another poor start will have players reliving that pitiful performance in their minds. Quite simply, their defensive reads at the moment are terrible – a main reason they concede a league-worst 6.4 line-breaks per game. 

Compare that with the Knights’ record of 3.2 per match (fourth in the competition) and there’s a world of difference. As the cliché goes, a week’s a long time in football… but is it long enough for Cleary to paper over some sizeable cracks?

The History: Played 37; Knights 20, Panthers 13, drawn 4. The Knights have a slight advantage in Newcastle, too, winning nine of the teams’ 17 clashes.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Brenden Wood; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Luke Patten.

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 5.30pm.

The Way We See It: There’s little doubt we’re expecting an improved performance from the Panthers – but can they produce an upset victory against the Knights in Newcastle? We think not; the Knights will have too much strike-power and defensive mettle across the park. And the Panthers’ roster – particularly following Lachlan Coote’s long-term pec problem – is weak. Newcastle by seven points. 

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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