Bulldogs v Panthers preview
Canterbury Bulldogs v Penrith Panthers
Saturday night's match between two western Sydney clubs offers a chance for one of them to move into the eight, with both currently stuck in a mid-table logjam on 14 points, level with the seventh-placed Raiders but outside the top eight (Panthers ninth, Bulldogs 11th) on for-and-against.
The Panthers have been cruelled by injury and while they've been competing bravely, it all came unstuck at home in their last start, Round 13's 20-0 shutout at home against the Storm.
The Origin-depleted Bulldogs went down on the Gold Coast last week but overall haven't been quite the force that many expected so far this year, although they too have had their share of injury and suspension issues.
With five players – halfback Trent Hodkinson, centre Josh Morris, fullback Brett Morris and forwards Josh Jackson and David Klemmer – all in action in Origin II coach Des Hasler has elected not to name any at this stage, so we'll have to wait until Saturday to find out how many of them return for NRL action on the weekend but expect it to be most of them, injury allowing.
There has still been a slight reshuffle from last week's team with Sam Kasiano moving from lock to prop, Antonio Kaufusi from prop to second row, and Greg Eastwood from second row to lock, as well as Herman Ese'ese coming onto the bench moving Shaun Lane to 18th man.
The Panthers are still without fullback Matt Moylan but welcome back five-eighth Jamie Soward, moving Tyrone Peachey to the bench. Lewis Brown moves to the starting side and Nigel Plum returns on the bench meaning Adam Docker and Sam Anderson each revert to an extended bench.
Watch out Bulldogs: Second-phase play isn't a guaranteed formula for success (the Panthers popped 15 offloads to Melbourne's seven in their big loss a fortnight ago) but it can create huge headaches for set defensive lines when used effectively. Penrith are currently the competition's leading offloaders with 16.3 per game and when you take into account the Bulldogs have the third most ineffective tackles with 206 after 14 rounds you can expect the blue and whites to be forced into making repeat efforts in defence all night.
Watch out Panthers: The running game of the Bulldogs big men is the biggest threat for the mountain men. The Bulldogs have the third-best average for team running metres per game with 813 metres – and this is partly because they are so hard to bring down. The Dogs are the second best side for metres after contact with a defender, pushing through for 577 metres per game after contacting a tackler.
Key Match-Up: Josh Reynolds v Jamie Soward. It's tough not knowing exactly who will line up for the Bulldogs but whether he starts at five-eighth or on the bench Josh Reynolds is one of the game's serious 'X-factor' players. In a different way, Soward is key for the Panthers. They've struggled in terms of their kicking game without him – he averages almost 400 metres from 14 kicks in the five games he's played but his absence has meant his side has the second-least amount of territory gained from kicks at 5,448 metres in 2015.
Reynolds is better known for his running – he kicks less than half as much as Soward but runs more than twice as much and breaks over two tackles per game (compared to Soward's none) and runs over nine times compared to Soward's three. Different styles of five-eighth, to be sure, but equally crucial to their team's chances.
The History: Played 87; Bulldogs 49, Panthers 35, Drawn 3. Penrith got the chocolates (just barely) as the Bulldogs came home with a wet sail in Round 1 and the mountain men have had the edge over the boys from Belmore in recent times, winning three of the past four and six of the past nine. It hasn't been such a happy time for the Panthers at ANZ Stadium though with just two wins from their past nine visits.
What Are The Odds: With their Origin stars returning, the Bulldogs have been very well backed to beat the Panthers, particularly giving away the start. Sportsbet has received more money on Curtis Rona to be the first tryscorer than any other player in the match. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee: Grant Atkins. Assistant referee: Adam Devcich. Touch judges: Steve Carrall and Lawrence McDonell. Video Referees: Steve Clark and Ben Galea.
Televised: Fox Sports, Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: Much will depend on what effect Wednesday night's Origin has on the Bulldogs line-up but on paper they look the stronger team and it will be a tough ask for the Panthers away from home. Bulldogs by six.