Schick Hydro Preview: Penrith Panthers v Parramatta Eels
The battle of the west is on again and it's close to must-win for both teams. Penrith stole a thriller at Pirtek Stadium back in Round 5, scoring an unlikely try right on full-time to steal a last-gasp win in one of few games the Eels lost through the early part of the year.
Parramatta's season has lurched from one well-publicised disaster to another since then, though in a credit to coach Brad Arthur and the players they've held it together on the field and kept stringing wins together.
Penrith have lost far too many winnable games for their fans' liking and the result of that – after going down to an Origin-ravaged Sharks outfit last week – they sit a win behind the eighth-placed Dragons heading into Round 19 and desperately needing a few wins to stay in touch with the finals zone.
Coach Anthony Griffin has named Origin representatives Matt Moylan and Josh Mansour to return to the team, with Tyrone Peachey back after a one-week disciplinary suspension. Dylan Edwards, Will Smith and Sitaleki Akauola all shift back to an extended bench.
Arthur has also named Blues centre Michael Jennings to back up with Brad Takairangi to finally return from an ankle injury meaning an all-new centre pairing, pushing Manu Ma'u back to the forwards and Clint Gutherson to the wing with Semi Radradra (knee) out for six weeks. Kenny Edwards drops back to the bench and Rory O'Brien to 18th man. Though originally named, playmaker Corey Norman has been stood down after pleading guilty to possessing a prohibited substance. Edwards and Takairangi are the two most likely candidates to replace him alongside Robson in the halves.
Watch out Panthers: With Norman out, Parramatta's biggest threat comes from their relentless forward pack. No Norman and no Radradra means a big reduction in strike power so if the Eels are to win this one they’ll need to grind it out through a bash and barge forwards game. Ma'u, Edwards, Tepai Moeroa, Peni Terepo and young prop Dan Alvaro are all capable of making a big statement with and without the ball and they'll need to outmuscle the Penrith pack to earn a win here.
Watch out Eels: Talented Panthers five-eighth Bryce Cartwright has been both good and bad in his recent stint in the halves but when he's good he's a game breaker. He still has some impatient options in his kit-bag and an occasional tendency to go a bit too sideways in attack but prolific offloading and wonderful ball skills mean he only ever seems one play away from creating a try-scoring opportunity. Even in last week's loss to Cronulla he broke four tackles, offloaded twice and created a try. A stunning 10 offloads in the loss to Wests Tigers a week earlier shows he's the sort of player who needs to be given extra attention by the defence.
Key match-up: Nathan Cleary v Jeff Robson. Two playmakers very different in style and at completely opposite ends of their career will have a big say in who wins this one. Cleary – still eligible for the under-20s competition next year, never mind this year, has looked mature well beyond his years in his young career to date, showing a fearlessness as well as great judgement when it comes to taking on the line as well as a developed passing and kicking game.
Robson, at 33, is in his last year in the NRL and didn't debut until 22 or nail down a regular first grade spot until his breakout 2009 season at the Eels at the age of 27. He is steady rather than dynamic but is unfussy and doesn't get flustered and should be the perfect foil for the in-form Norman moving forward. He'll be on his own in terms of halves here in just his second game back in blue and gold while paired with a stand-in pivot. Cleary too will have the bulk of responsibilities in terms of controlling the team alongside Cartwright.
The history: Played 92; Panthers 36, Eels 55, Drawn 1. A big historical advantage for the Eels but things are level pegging of late – the last eight meetings are split four apiece overall and the last eight at Penrith, likewise, are split four apiece.
What are the odds: Betting is split 50-50 according to Sportsbet and there's been more money on the draw than you'd see in your average NRL match. Both sides have been backed to win by 1-12 so everything points towards a tight contest. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins. Assistant referee: Alan Shortall. Sideline officials: Rohan Best and Michael Wise. Review officials: Ben Galea and Matt Cecchin. Senior review official: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage from 4pm. Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 4pm.
The way we see it: The loss of Norman is massive for the Eels and with no Radradra either things get very tough in their hunt for points. Penrith can both score and concede points at a rapid rate but it's that point-scoring capability where they have the advantage this weekend. Penrith by 10.