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Panthers v Knights
Sportingbet Stadium
Saturday 4:30pm (AEDT)

There are more questions than answers surrounding the Panthers and Knights as they approach their first match of the 2014 season.  

How will the Panthers travel with their new halves partnership in Peter Wallace and Jamie Soward? What will the Knights do to fill the void left by inspirational leader Jarrod Mullen? Will the Panthers live up to Gus’s expectations or will the Knights flex their muscles and go one better than last year? By the time Saturday afternoon rolls around some of these questions could perhaps be answered - in what is shaping up to be one of the more intriguing clashes of this season’s opening round. 

Notwithstanding Newcastle's miraculous run to the preliminary final last season, these two teams were separated on the ladder by a mere three points. Breaking down both clubs' figures from last year, you would be excused for thinking that the Panthers and Knights were drawing from one another’s game plans. On a game-to-game basis, the Panthers and Knights respectively averaged similar numbers in tries scored (3.5 to 3.7), points (20.6 to 21.6), hit-ups (139.6 to 139.5), line breaks (2.8 to 3.2) and tackles (299.8 to 300.3). 

Adding to the intrigue, both sides had strong showings in their final trial matches as well as both being eliminated in the quarter finals at the Auckland Nines after winning their respective pools. 

The Panthers will be hampered by the loss of internationals Sika Manu while injury clouds surround new recruit Jamie Soward and Jamal Idris. For the Knights, former Panther Clint Newton will be denied the chance to face his old side after being ruled out for the season with a ruptured bicep, while the loss of five-eighth Jarrod Mullen will have obvious consequences. 

Watch Out Panthers: Even without Jarrod Mullen, the Knights boast one of the most dynamic and exciting backlines in the NRL. Their three-quarters alone, consisting of names like Uate, McManus, Gagai and Leulia, managed to score over half of the Knights' total tries for last season. Dane Gagai especially will be keen to cross the white stripe this season having only scoring five four-pointers last season. 

Penrith will be on the lookout for new halfback and co-captain Peter Wallace to lift exponentially. In 24 games for the Broncos last season, Wallace conjured only four try assists – a facet of his game that saw him relegated to the bench late in the season. Wallace will need to drastically improve if the Panthers are to be successful.

Watch Out Knights: Jarrod Mullen’s hamstring injury has undeniably left a big hole to fill. Mullen, in career-best form of late, contributed 26 try assists towards the Knights efforts last season (ranking fourth in the NRL). Mullen’s direction will now fall at the feet of halfback Tyrone Roberts – an opportunity that could make or break the 22-year-old. Roberts will now be the man responsible to the keys of the kingdom, in attempting to replicate Mullen’s influence in the Newcastle side.

The Panthers are a side accustomed to throwing the sneaky offload. The Panthers averaged 11 per game in 2013 (ranking second in the NRL). The Knights should be on the look-out – sticking their tackles should be an absolute priority – especially considering they conceded the second most offloads last season. 

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Plays To Watch: Akuila Uate a dynamic set starter – he managed to make 1044 metres when returning the ball last season (1st in the NRL); James Segeyaro’s offloading impact off the bench – the livewire hooker often gets the Panthers on their front foot with a sneaky offload or two, Segeyaro managing 36 offloads last season (9th in the NRL); Kade Snowden – man on a mission. Before having his 2013 season cut short due to suspension, Snowden was leading the charge for Newcastle, averaging 144 metres per game (8th in the NRL); Jamie Soward’s kicking radar engaged – before jetting off to England for half a season, Soward in 12 games for the Dragons, kicked for an astounding 4096m. Had he continued at the same rate he would’ve been placed among the competition’s elite.

Where It Will Be Won: Not much separates either of these sides when looking back at last year’s performances. To draw from the old adage – a very apt point to draw upon in the early stages of the season –defence wins games. Both the Knights' and Panthers' attacking statistics are too similar to dissect efficiently. As cliché as it sounds, this game will come down to whichever side contains the other more effectively. 

The early stages of this match will be a forwards battle – it will be the likes of Snowden, Kite, Mason and Grant laying the platform for their side early – inevitably looking to continue with this momentum late in the game’s proceedings. 

The History: Newcastle have won the past five games between the teams, including both matches in 2013. Two of those five wins came at Sportingbet Stadium, including by 34- and 18-point margins.

What Are The Odds: The Penny Panthers are the best backed side of all to make the top 8 this season with As a result, their price has shortened from $2.90 into $2. They’re $1.77 favourites to beat Newcastle.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Steve Folkes.

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 4:30pm (AEDT)

The Way We See It: This game is almost too close to call. While Jarrod Mullen is out for the first half of the season, the Knights' squad is largely unchanged from last year’s run into the final four. With several new faces included in the side, the new-look Panthers may struggle to have their structure down pat and with injury clouds surrounding several players this may hinder the chocolate soldiers' efforts. Knights by 2 points. 

Stats: Champion Data.

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