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Panthers v Dragons
Centrebet Stadium
Saturday, 7.30pm

Season 2013 is not over until the fat lady sings – at least the plummeting Panthers and desperate Dragons are hoping so as they search for a rare victory here to keep their finals hopes alive.

It’s fair to say both Penrith’s and St George Illawarra’s campaigns haven’t gone to plan this year – but where there’s life, there’s hope. A win for either side in this match after last week’s bye will keep them within striking distance of the top eight and keep their finals flames flickering.

For the Panthers, currently sitting in 10th spot on 14 points, it’s been a patchy performance in 2013 – what started in such promising fashion (a 32-10 win against the Raiders in Round 1) was followed by five consecutive losses. Sure, they won four from their next five, but back-to-back defeats before last week’s bye gives them a less-than-satisfactory record of five-and-eight.

The Dragons, meanwhile, in 14th position on just 12 points, have also never fully kicked into gear. It was a pretty rough start right out of the gates – three losses on the trot, followed by three wins then another three defeats – in a beginning to the season that ultimately has had them on the back foot ever since. There hasn’t been any consistency to their game, as you’d expect from a team that’s won just five of 14 fixtures, and two from their past eight.

This week, following last week’s rest, will be touted by both teams’ coaches as the opportunity to launch their title assault – to come out refreshed and ready to prove to their fans, opposition and the league in general that they are better than their ladder position indicates.

For the Panthers, James Roberts comes in for the relegated Travis Robertson, Brad Tighe replaces Josh Mansour (fractured eye socket – due back in Round 20) and Tim Grant returns to push Mose Masoe to the bench. Bullocking back-rower Sika Manu is out for a fractured thumb that is likely to keep him sidelined until Round 22.

For the Dragons, Blues representative trio Josh Dugan, Trent Merrin and Brett Morris have all been named. Veteran centre Matt Cooper (toe) remains on the club’s injured list. Their team remains unchanged from the one that suffered a narrow loss to the Cowboys in Round 14.

Watch Out Panthers: All signs are pointing to a St George Illawarra victory – even if it’s a home game for Penrith! The Panthers have never defeated the Dragons twice in a season, and the Dragons have won three of their past four matches at Centrebet Stadium. Three of St George Illawarra’s five victories in 2013 have also been away from home.

Watch Out Dragons: Penrith have been surprisingly competent holding onto the football in 2013 and are ranked fourth in the league for the least number of errors conceded per match – a statistic that belies their position on the table. They average just 9.5 mistakes per match – behind the Broncos, Knights and Bulldogs – and have not lost a game in 2013 when they committed fewer errors than their opposition. Coach Ivan Cleary will be calling for mistake-free football – and if he gets it his team will be well on the way to collecting another two competition points.

Plays To Watch: Simple, up-the-guts play that puts the Dragons’ centre-field players in a direct battle with the Panthers’ middle-of-the-ruck attackers and defenders. Don’t expect this game to be a free-flowing, spin-the-ball-wide affair – Sydney’s monsoon-like recent weather will ensure it’s basic footy in this clash. And whichever team executes that most effectively will win.

Key Match-Up: The Panthers’ most experienced props up against the Dragons’ seasoned front-rowers – it’s a battle that could very well make or break this game for both teams. Penrith’s two reliable big men are Tim Grant (146 metres/game) and Nigel Plum (125 metres/game) – and they’re up against similarly experienced big-boppers in Dan Hunt (111 metres/game) and Michael Weyman (64 metres/game). Origin-experienced Grant and Weyman, in particular, could be relied on to get their teams going if that going gets particularly tough. 

Where It Will Be Won: The boot of Luke Walsh. In expected quagmire-like conditions at the foot of the mountains, the skills of each team will even-out as line-running, set plays and smooth moves take a back seat to the simplest of rugby league skills – catching a pass, tucking it under a wing and charging at the defence. As a result, on the fifth tackle each halfback’s short- and long-kicking games are even more important – and Walsh is the best half on the field. If he plays to his potential, he’ll kick his team to field position that gives the Panthers match-winning momentum. (In four of the Panthers’ five victories this season, they’ve kicked for more metres than their opponents, too. Just a coincidence? We think not.)

The History: Played 25, St George Illawarra 16, Penrith 9. At Centrebet Stadium, though, the ledger is even with the Dragons and Panthers winning six games apiece.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Adam Reid; Video Referees – Paul Mellor & Justin Morgan. 

NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone, iPad or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week, including the Panthers v Dragons clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7.30pm.

Download the NRL Live 2013 App and watch every NRL match on your Smart Phone or iPad. Download now for iPhone and iPad or Android

The Way We See It: This will very likely prove an arm wrestle – and with Sydney recently buffeted by rains, which are predicted to continue through the weekend, whichever forward pack aims up best should get the money. We think that’s likely to be the Panthers – we’ll back them by seven points at home in an absolute slugfest. And on Walsh’s superior kicking game, too.
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