Schick Hydro Preview: Penrith Panthers v South Sydney Rabbitohs
Never judge a book by its cover.
The Panthers started the 2016 season with two straight losses, but have won six of their past 11 matches to sit outside the top eight only on points differential.
The Rabbitohs started the year with back-to-back wins, but won just three of their next 12 matches to sit in 13th spot on the NRL Telstra Premiership ladder.
Based on early-season form, you'd have thought the Bunnies would be sure things this Friday night. You'd be wrong.
The Rabbitohs have lost three straight and could find themselves eight points outside the eight by the end of the round and will be underdogs against a Penrith side that is coming off a spirited win against Manly.
The Panthers have the luxury of naming the same 17 that took care of the Sea Eagles in Round 14.
South Sydney have named a new-look back five upon Adam Reynolds and Greg Inglis's return from Origin duty. Reynolds will partner Luke Keary in the halves with Cody Walker shifting to fullback and Alex Johnston to the wing in place of Dane Nielsen. Inglis replaces Kirisome Auva'a in the centres, while Aaron Gray joins his skipper there too. Siosifa Talakai is out, with Tautalatasi Tasi set to make his NRL debut on the wing. Paul Carter's suspension sees Jack Gosiewski, Patrice Siolo and Ed Murphy join an extended bench.
Watch out Panthers: Greg Inglis has been named at centre for the first time since Round 2, 2012 at club level and will be licking his lips at the prospect of having some extra room on the fringes. Inglis has 44 tries from 71 appearances at centre and has been a mainstay in that position for both the Maroons and Kangaroos. 'GI' has scored nine tries from 11 appearances against the Panthers including two hat-tricks, so Waqa Blake could be set for a long night in Sydney's golden west.
Watch out Rabbitohs: The Panthers have plenty of strike across the park, but the best way to extract that firepower is through offloads. No team has had more second-phase footy than the mountain men in 2016, with the Panthers producing 198 offloads through 15 rounds; more than last year's grand finalists, the Cowboys and Broncos, combined (195). Bryce Cartwright (33) and Trent Merrin (26) are in the top 10 in the competition, while five others are in double figures.
Key match-up: Nathan Cleary v Adam Reynolds. By the time this game kicks off, Cleary will be two games into his NRL career while Reynolds will have two Origin matches under his belt. It was Round 16, 2015 that the Panthers halfback made his Holden Cup debut, and nearly 12 months to the day since that tight loss to the Tigers, he has already established himself as an effective first-grader. Cleary took the game by the scruff of the neck against Manly a fortnight ago, scoring his first try in the NRL and running for 113 metres. Reynolds is vastly more experienced but will be battle-weary backing up two days after the Suncorp Stadium showdown. His kicking game will need to be at its best if the Rabbitohs are going to win.
The history: Played 77; Panthers 33, Rabbitohs 43, Drawn 1. The Rabbitohs have only won three of their past 12 matches at Pepper Stadium, but have a far sweeter overall record with five wins from their past six against the Panthers.
What are the odds: Around two-thirds of the money is with the Panthers, although support for the Rabbitohs has come in the form of handicap betting where South Sydney are receiving the start. Panthers 13-plus has been the most popular winning margin option with Sportsbet punters. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Gavin Badger. Assistant referee: Chris Sutton. Sideline officials: Tim Roby and Phil Henderson.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage from 7:30pm. Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7pm.
The way we see it: It's not a make-or-break scenario for either team, but if the Panthers want to play finals football, this is the sort of the game that they have to win in front of their home fans. Penrith by 14.