Schick Hydro Preview: Penrith Panthers v Brisbane Broncos
You will struggle to find more contrasting starts to the season than that of the Brisbane Broncos and Penrith Panthers as they sit at opposite ends of the 2016 Telstra Premiership Ladder.
The Broncos are unbeaten and continue to firm as premiership favourites and it almost appears as if Wayne Bennett's men are yet to get out of third gear as they move towards Round 3.
The Panthers on the other hand are struggling – yet to win a game, they have suffered consecutive heartbreaking losses in the last five minutes to both the Canberra Raiders and the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.
The Panthers will this week welcome the inclusion of Will Smith at fullback following the news that captain Matt Moylan will miss at least another week with a back injury.
Peter Wallace continues to reinvent himself following the Round 1 injury to James Segeyaro, with the former NSW Origin halfback starting at hooker and Tyrone Peachey slotting in at five-eighth.
Brisbane have lost Queensland Origin contender Corey Oates to a shoulder injury that will see him out of action for at least four weeks with English recruit Greg Eden promoted to the vacant starting spot on the left wing.
Watch out Panthers: The Broncos' defence has been outstanding in the first two games of the season. They have only conceded 14 points – the best of any club in the NRL. In addition, Brisbane have now kept opposition teams to under 20 points in 10 straight games – a club record. It will be up to experienced Penrith playmakers Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace to try and find a way to breach Brisbane's rock-solid defence. If this isn't enough for the Panthers to worry about – they also have to shut down Brisbane's Anthony Milford. Milford has been hard to contain in the Broncos' first two games of the season and the five-eighth will be eager to continue his impressive form. If the game is going down to the wire expect Milford to put a field goal over as he has kicked two in the first two games for 2016.
Watch out Broncos: Jamie Soward has turned back the clock in recent weeks and it's his defence that has impressed the most, with the 31-year-old leading the competition in tackles causing turnovers. It means Brisbane will have to think twice before running at Soward who has been hungry to push up hard in defence. Discipline will be Brisbane's number one priority and if the Broncos don't produce a disciplined performance then you can expect penalty goals aplenty with Soward sitting at an imposing 100 per cent goal-kicking rate after two rounds. Soward will look to target Eden with his kicking game as Eden may struggle under the high ball. Eden made four errors in his only appearance for Brisbane this season and if he drops one early on Saturday night he may struggle to come back from it.
Key match-up: Trent Merrin v Corey Parker. Ultimately the game will be won in the middle. Origin locks Corey Parker and Trent Merrin will go head-to-head in a battle of pure power. It won't be the flashy match-up you may see in the backs but this will be better as two of the game's best forwards put on a showpiece of old school gritty rugby league. 26-year-old Merrin has performed well in his first two games at Penrith, having been forced to take on majority of the workload left by the inexperienced forwards around him. Averaging 157 metres per game and 25 tackles, the former Dragon would no doubt like to see his workload increase as he looks to get more involved in Penrith's defensive efforts. A lift in defence from Merrin may be the difference come Saturday night as the Panthers try and contain an ominous looking Broncos forward pack. Brisbane have cruised to victory in both games this season and that has caused Bennett to protect Broncos captain Parker. Parker has not needed to play long minutes due to the impressive output from representative forwards Matt Gillett and Josh McGuire. Parker is averaging just 56 minutes a game but still manages to churn out 32 tackles and 111 metres a game. If Parker can repeat these efforts up the middle, he and the Brisbane forward pack may overrun an inexperienced Penrith side.
The history: Played 48; Panthers 17, Broncos 30, Drawn 1. Penrith had the wood over Brisbane during the early 1990s and mid-2000s, but it's the Broncos who hold the superior overall record. Close finishes have been the order of the day in recent history between these two sides. Last year's match at Suncorp Stadium had Penrith leading for all but 79 minutes until Ben Hunt put Corey Oates over the line to give Brisbane an 8-5 victory. The last time these two teams met at Penrith it was a completely different story. Panthers coach Anthony Griffin was in charge of Brisbane as the Broncos suffered a 35-34 loss. Matt Moylan kicked the winning field goal on the stroke of full-time after a Josh McGuire knock-on gifted Penrith with the field position to win it. Saturday night promises to be a close one if recent history is anything to go by.
What are the odds: Panthers $2.80, Broncos $1.44. There’s no love for the Panthers with Sportsbet punters. Four times the cash has been splashed on the Broncos as far as head-to-head betting is concerned, and Brisbane 13+ is holding more money than Penrith 1-12 or 13+ combined. Punters expect James Roberts to break his try scoring duck – sitting favourite in the first try-scoring market at $9.50. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Grant Atkins; Assistant Referee: Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges: Russell Turner & Kasey Badger; Review Officials: Bryan Norrie & Jason Robinson; Senior RO: Luke Patten.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live coverage from 6pm (QLD), 7pm (NSW).
The way we see it: Brisbane have scored first in both their games this season and you can expect this trend to continue. Penrith is a hard place to visit and the loss of Corey Oates is big for Brisbane but we still expect them to take the two points. The Panthers should show heart and stick with Brisbane for 60 minutes but the Broncos' class will be too much for a Panthers side full of inexperience. Wayne Bennett will have Brisbane ready for this one and don’t be surprised if you see Milford add another field goal to his tally. Broncos by 13.