Panthers v Titans
Carrington Park, Bathurst
Saturday 4.30pm (AEDT)
The people of the Central West get an early taste of Telstra Premiership action in 2015 as the Panthers take the second game in a five-year deal to Bathurst's Carrington Park, the Titans embarking on a two-leg journey to take them on.
The last time the Titans played in the region they racked up a club-record 42-4 thumping of the Eels in Mudgee but they come into this clash amidst a pre-season of turmoil and against a Panthers team who have set about proving last year's run to the Preliminary Final was no fluke.
While the footy gods chose the right boot of Pat Richards to give the Titans another kick in the guts last weekend, the Panthers sent the NRL abuzz with a blistering opening hour to their campaign that saw them lead last year's runners up the Bulldogs 24-0.
Exciting young wingers Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and NRL debutant George Jennings made up for any perceived mismatch in the forwards with strong carries early in the Panthers sets that gave hooker James Segeyaro the platform to park his side's attack.
The Bulldogs had no answer until the 68th minute and three tries in the space of eight minutes would have given Penrith coach Ivan Cleary a talking point in the team's video review session early in the week.
Although not named in the 18-man squad on Tuesday by coach Neil Henry, suspended Titans Greg Bird, Dave Taylor and Beau Falloon could still yet earn a call-up if the club's board and the NRL Integrity Unit gives them the all clear to return until their next appearance in court on drugs charges.
The only other minor change to the Titans is a swap between Lachlan Burr and Matt Robinson that sees Burr promoted to the starting team while Cleary has been able to name an unchanged line-up to that which defeated the Bulldogs.
Watch out Panthers: There are a couple of very familiar faces in the Titans squad who this time 12 months ago would have been wearing black and not ocean blue, and both looked sharp in Round 1. Former Panthers hooker Kierran Moseley was thrust into starting opposite Robbie Farah in just his second NRL appearance against the Tigers and although he was solid in racking up 30 tackles in 44 minutes, struggled to make an impact with any runs of note out of dummy half. James Roberts ran for 95 metres, scored two tries and looked threatening throughout but again was limited by few genuine opportunities to showcase his blistering speed. They're two players both determined to prove they belong and they'd relish the chance to upset their former club.
Watch out Titans: Since departing the Cowboys at the end of the 2012 season James Segeyaro has gone about proving that he is not only worthy of an NRL starting spot but that he is now among the most effective hookers in the Telstra Premiership. The reigning Dally M Hooker of the Year started 2015 in scintillating fashion against the Bulldogs, playing 80 minutes in oppressive heat and causing the big Bulldogs forwards to pirouette more often than a Russian ice dancer. His solo try in the 41st minute maintained the momentum Penrith took into half-time and all told he ran for 131 metres, made seven tackle busts and had five offloads. He is merciless when a spies a disorganised ruck defence and is capable of causing the Titans all sorts of problems.
Key Match-Up: A couple of left-footers with their side's fortunes resting on their kicking skills makes the head-to-head between Jamie Soward and Aidan Sezer an integral piece of this puzzle. Soward was the dominant kicker for the Panthers in their 24-18 win over the Bulldogs with 385 kicking metres while Sezer shared the responsibility for the Titans equally with Daniel Mortimer. Sezer's kicking game has much more variety than Mortimer's and the Titans need their five-eighth to build pressure with repeat sets in order to build any pressure on the Panthers. Sezer also ran for far more metres than Soward did against the Bulldogs and his combination with Ryan James on the left edge looks to be an early trump card for the Titans.
The History: Played 11; Panthers 7, Titans 4
Games between the Panthers and Titans have been traditionally high-scoring affairs in the short history of their rivalry with at least 50 total points scored in seven of their 11 meetings. The Panthers are currently on a three-game winning streak over Gold Coast, registering 14-12 and 36-14 victories in 2014.
What Are The Odds: Panthers $1.22, Titans $4.35
More than double the money has come in for the Panthers in this one, firming from $1.25 into $1.22. Punters however do fancy the Titans line of +12.5, easily better backed than the Panthers' 12.5.
Did You Know: Last year's 18-16 loss to the Sharks in Bathurst was the Panthers' first defeat in three previous visits to the New South Wales Central West town. The Panthers' first game at Carrington Park was back in 1985 when they defeated Parramatta 18-10 in the National Panasonic Cup and then in 1990 they defeated Western Suburbs 21-10 in the Channel Ten Challenge Cup. Although Bathurst had hosted 10 pre-season and representative fixtures previously, last year's Telstra Premiership clash was the first time competition points had been up for grabs.
Match Officials: Lead Referee: Gavin Morris. Assistant Referee: Alan Shortall. Touch Judges: David Ryan and Jon Stone. Video Referees: Steve Clark and Steve Folkes.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 4.30pm AEDT.
The Way We See It: Having established such a strong connection with the Bathurst community in recent years the Panthers will feel right at home despite the relative unfamiliar surroundings of Carrington Park. There are positives everywhere you look for the men from Penrith and they will start this game as overwhelming favourites. The Titans' prospects of causing an upset will rest heavily on whether the likes of Bird and Taylor in particular are allowed to take their place in the side. Given the effort of an under-manned team in Round 1, the addition of a determined Bird and Taylor would be capable of giving the Titans a significant lift but it is hard to see that even being enough to earn their first win of the year. Panthers by 16.