Schick Hydro Preview: Gold Coast Titans v Penrith Panthers
Cbus Super Stadium
There's no need for a degree in applied mathematics for this game as the equation is simple: Win and you're in.
The opportunity to secure a place in the coveted playoff games of the Telstra Premiership with a week of the regular season up your sleeve is one that is so desired that it has the potential to cloud the performance of either team.
Sitting pretty on 28 points and with five wins from their past six games, the Panthers can possibly lose their last two games and still sneak in but given the momentum their young crop is generating under coach Anthony Griffin any stumble now could be crippling.
One point behind this week's combatants on the premiership table, the Titans are likely to need at least one win over the Panthers or Cowboys in Round 26 in order to secure their place in the top eight for the first time since 2010.
It's so close they can touch it but they dare not reach out for fear of having their hands chopped off.
The match itself promises to be an enthralling exchange of two very different styles with the Titans becoming the kings of the counter punch and the Panthers preferring to attack from every angle and continue the offensive barrage until the opposition are left virtually defenceless.
Jarryd Hayne will wear the No.1 jersey in the NRL for the first time in almost two years with Tyrone and Ashley Taylor reuniting in the halves and hoping to build on their record of nine wins and a draw from the 15 games in which they have both played this season. When either has been missing the Titans have won just two of seven games.
After Chris Grevsmuhl's return from an elbow injury last week the Panthers are unchanged, Jeremy Latimore and Moses Leota named on a six-man interchange bench.
When the Panthers came to the Gold Coast 20 years ago to take on the Chargers only 1,500 people turned out at Carrara Stadium; they should expect a far more boisterous welcome this weekend.
Watch out Titans: He may have been overlooked for a Blues berth this year but such has been Trent Merrin's form over the past month in particular his odds of making the Kangaroos squad for the Four Nations are shortening every week. Since his man-of-the-match performance against the Broncos in Round 20 Merrin has been operating in rare air, averaging more than 185 metres in a tick under 70 minutes per game to go with 10 offloads. His clash with fellow NSW discard Greg Bird will be a highlight.
Watch out Panthers: Now that Jarryd Hayne has had his feet back under the table for a couple of weeks Titans coach Neil Henry has shifted his star recruit back to his favoured position at fullback but it is hard to know exactly what to expect. He will rotate in and out during the game – most likely with left centre Josh Hoffman – and his combination with halves Ashley Taylor and Tyrone Roberts won't be as fluent as other teams at this stage of the season. Hopefully for the Titans' sake he gets a clean catch on that first high ball that is sent his way.
Key match-up: Ashley Taylor v Nathan Cleary. It's perhaps unfair to put the onus on these two rookies to come up with the all-important result for their team but given their introduction to the NRL this season it's a match-up that could have wide-ranging ramifications for the decade to come. There were high hopes for the successive No.7s for the Junior Kangaroos in 2015 and 2016 but no one expected their rise within the NRL ranks to be so rapid. They have the potential to not only be opposing halfbacks at club level but also in State of Origin with calmness beyond their years ideally suited to the frantic nature of Origin encounters. Cleary gave Taylor a sizeable head start for the pursuit of Rookie of the Year honours but given the young Panther's form it's a decision that will go right down to the wire.
History: Played 14; Titans 6, Panthers 8. Ever since the bloodbath in Bathurst in Round 2 last year the Titans have had the better of the Panthers with two wins on the trot, including their come-from-behind stunner at Penrith in Round 11. The Panthers boast a 3-3 record at Cbus Super Stadium and an overall record on the Gold Coast of 10 wins from 15 trips to the glitter strip.
What are the odds: Titans $1.80 v Panthers $2.00. Sportsbet customers are very keen on Penrith in this one. Three times the money has been invested on the Panthers in the head-to-head market and they've been well backed at the line, where they're receiving the start. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Grant Atkins; Assistant Referee: Chris Sutton; Touch Judges: Russell Turner and Nick Morel; Review Officials: Ben Galea and Jared Maxwell; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live from 5pm.
How we see it: Both teams come in with only the one loss from their past six games and with a guaranteed place in the Telstra Premiership finals series tantalisingly within reach. The Panthers have been ruthless in disposing of the Roosters, Knights and Wests Tigers in recent weeks while the Titans have had to work a bit harder to knock over Newcastle and Wests. Despite the appearance of a loose defensive line the Titans have scrambled well all season but the potency of the Panthers might be too tough to contain for 80 minutes. Panthers by eight points.
Game on. Data off.
Stream every NRL game, including finals, live and data free with a 2016 Footy Pass, exclusive to Telstra mobile.
Watch all the NRL action live on your compatible tablet or mobile device with data-free streaming on your Telstra mobile plan.
For use in Australia only.