Titans v Panthers preview

Titans v Panthers
Cbus Super Stadium
Saturday, 5.30pm

It will make for an awkward Cartwright Christmas reunion if nephew Bryce extends the losing streak of uncle John to at least four games while at the same time solidifying Penrith's perhaps unexpected position in the top four.

The team that couldn't string two wins – or two losses for that matter – together is now within reach of a perfect month of football, while the Titans are desperately trying to keep pace with the top four having sat alone at the summit less than two months ago.

The long-awaited debut of Bryce Cartwright in Penrith's 38-12 defeat of the Eels last Friday night adds an extra layer of intrigue to a clash between two teams who have exceeded expectations at various stages of the first half of the season.

A 5-1 start saw the Titans soar to be competition front-runners, while wins over the Knights, Raiders and Eels in the past three weeks see Penrith placed ahead of all but the Bulldogs as we approach the halfway mark of the 2014 Telstra Premiership.

Only once in the first seven weeks did the Panthers manage to post at least 20 points but their attack has become more fluent in recent weeks, with totals of 32, 26 and 38 points racked up in three straight wins.

Much of that can be attributed to a confident Jamie Soward, who came up with three try assists against Parramatta to take his tally for the season to 10, four more than the next best Panther, centre Dean Whare.

The Titans are still somewhat reeling from the long-term pectoral injury to five-eighth Aidan Sezer, Ashley Harrison remains sidelined with a neck injury, while hooker Beau Falloon has been unable to recover from a knee injury.

Albert Kelly returns at halfback despite experiencing continual pain in his left leg, with close friend Maurice Blair slotting in at No.6 after doing a fine job there in the loss to the Warriors in Round 11.

Nigel Plum made an earlier than expected return from concussion last week against Parramatta, with Kevin Kingston again left out of the 17 this week due to a foot injury.

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Watch Out Titans: The Peachey name made a welcome return to the NRL highlight reel last weekend, with David's nephew Tyrone fully displaying the skills that have been dominating the NSW Cup for the past two seasons.

Lured away from the Sharks with the potential to play first grade at Penrith, Peachey was a member of the starting side for just the third time in his 16 career games to date against Parramatta and responded with 256 running metres, two tries, five tackle breaks, a line break, 24 tackles and the rapturous applause of a capacity Panthers crowd. He's skilful, strong and deceptively quick, and Tyrone Peachey is finally in first grade to stay.

Watch Out Panthers: Greg Bird's back and desperate to make amends for two weeks on the sidelines due to suspension. The enforced layoff has enabled him to work on a foot injury that had been troubling him since the Test against New Zealand and he now has just one game to earn his recall to the successful NSW team from Game One of the Origin Series.

His last outing against the Rabbitohs was his most disappointing of the season, with six missed tackles, three errors and less than 100 running metres for the first time in 2014. When the Titans travelled to Penrith in Round 7 Bird ran for 144m, made three offloads and three tackle breaks, and it's that type of performance that he'll be expecting of himself this week.

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Plays To Watch: Offloads will be key in this clash, with the Titans well served by Paul Carter (20), Greg Bird (18) and Brad Takairangi (16) in an NRL-high team total of 134 offloads through 12 rounds. The Panthers are ranked third in the competition with 125 offloads but their most proficient exponent, Jamal Idris, won't be making the return to face his former club due to personal issues.

The ace up the Panthers' sleeve, however, may be a face all too familiar to the opposition coach. Bryce Cartwright – the nephew of Titans coach John Cartwright – looked right at home in making his first grade debut last weekend and his three offloads to go with 89 metres were an impressive return in only limited game time.

Where It Will Be Won: You could be excused for thinking that the team with the second-best defence in the NRL might be a dour offensive unit but the Panthers showed last week against Parramatta that there are more and more points in them each week. And when it comes to a match-up with the Titans, the Panthers look Harlem Globetrotter-like. They boast 49 line-breaks to the Titans' 23 and 30 try assists compared to 15, all while having less tackles in the opposition 20-metre line. If opportunity knocks on Saturday night, the Panthers appear best placed to take advantage.

The History: Played 10; Titans 4, Panthers 6. Traditionally high-scoring encounters between these two clubs, Penrith's 14-12 win back in Round 7 was the first time that the total match points in a Titans-Panthers fixture had been less than 30 points. On average there are 49 total points scored when these two sides meet but Penrith's improved defensive resolve in 2014 may see a lower-scoring contest. The Panthers have won three of the past four most recent meetings and have won twice from four previous visits to the Gold Coast.

What Are The Odds: Overwhelming support for Penrith at Sportsbet.com.au, with seven times the money seeing the Panthers $1.75 favourites in from $2.14. The Titans have drifted from favouritism (were $1.71, now $2.10) so prices have practically reversed.

Match Officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin; Assistant Referee: Grant Atkins; Touch Judges: Jeff Younis and Dave Ryan; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy and Steve Folkes.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.

The Way We See It: Second-phase play will be a feature of this clash with the likes of Kelly and Soward to sweat on any opportunities to cut loose in broken-field play. The Panthers have struck a consistent vein of form after trading wins and losses in the opening nine weeks, while the Titans are trying to arrest a rapid slide down the ladder. Just two points separate these teams on the ladder but they are a fair distance apart in terms of confidence. Panthers by eight points.