Schick Hydro Preview: Penrith Panthers v Canterbury Bulldogs
The opening weekend of the finals wraps up with the only all-Sydney clash of the weekend as the in-form Panthers host a Bulldogs side that hasn't quite clicked of late at Allianz Stadium.
On the wrong side of plenty of extremely narrow losses earlier in the year, Anthony Griffin's Panthers have now won seven of their past eight games and plenty of those by big margins.
With respect to the likes of Manly, Newcastle and Wests Tigers they didn't have a lot to beat in some of those games but they gutsed out a win on the Gold Coast against fellow finalists the Titans after their hosts came back to tie things up from 14-0 behind, and a big win up in Brisbane was one of the best Panthers performances of the year.
Griffin has named the same 17 that got the job done against Manly last week, with Moses Leota added to an extended bench.
Canterbury remain hard to get a read on. The late-surging Rabbitohs completely outclassed them last week as a late-season slump of three straight losses has seen them slip to a seventh-place finish. They haven't beaten a top-eight side since downing Brisbane during the Origin period in Round 16.
Coach Des Hasler is without fullback Will Hopoate for religious reasons while Hopoate's fellow outside back Sam Perrett is still unavailable with a neck injury. It means Brett Morris moves to fullback with Tyrone Phillips called up on the wing. Big Sam Kasiano is a welcome return from a two-week suspension on the bench. He pushes Dany Fualalo to 18th man.
Watch out Panthers: The return of Kasiano is timely for Hasler. The Dogs have looked to lack a bit of punch in their attacking sets in his absence and his injection midway through the first half will be a key time in this game. While Kasiano is never one to play huge minutes or pump out huge numbers, the way he bends the line and causes uncertainty for defence lifts the blue and whites and not having him over the past fortnight has been telling.
Watch out Bulldogs: The sheer creativity emanating from Penrith lately has been devastating for their opponents. With young half Nathan Cleary constantly taking good options and Bryce Cartwright freed up to play his natural game with skipper Matt Moylan at the back in career-best form, as well as Tyrone Peachey finding his niche at left centre and also in career best form, points have been easy to come by for the Panthers. The question is if they can continue to defend well; if so you'd back them to score enough points.
Key match-up: Matt Moylan v Brett Morris. Morris is no stranger to the No.1 jersey, having played there when he first joined the club last year. But after spending the first half of the year sidelined and Will Hopoate slotting in there nicely Morris has been successfully plying his trade on the wing. He has had enough time back from his knee injury to get to grips with the structures now but to have his first game of the year at the back in a knock-out final is a big ask. It may open up his dynamic ball running but for a team that has struggled to create scoring opportunities this year, a ball-runner rather than a playmaker at the back won't alleviate this. On the flipside of the coin, Moylan isn't known for powerful charges but his silky skills have been a huge asset of late and the damage he caused Manly last week with an evasive solo try plus a massive three try assists (the sublime pass to Peter Wallace arguably the highlight) was telling.
The History: Played 89; Panthers 35, Bulldogs 51, Drawn 3. The Dogs have seven wins from their past 10 trips to Allianz while Penrith have won just four from 10. The two teams haven't met at the venue since a 30-14 win to the 2004 premiership-winning Bulldogs to book a spot in that year's Grand Final.
What are the odds: Three quarters of the money invested on the game is running with Penrith, however Sportsbet punters are only willing to back the Panthers to win a tight one by 1-12 points. There has been more money wagered on the Bulldogs at the line with punters taking advantage of the start for the Bulldogs. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Jared Maxwell. Assistant referee: Chris James. Sideline officials: Nick Beashel and Russell Turner. Review officials: Ben Galea & Jason Robinson. Senior review official: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Chanel Nine – Live coverage from 4pm. Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 4pm.
The way we see it: Everything about the form lines says Penrith but there's something about Des Hasler-coached sides at the back end of the year. They just seem to find something come finals time and an inexperienced Penrith team will need to be ready for a big step up this week. We'll still tip the Mountain Men by a narrow two point margin but expect a tight tussle – it wouldn't surprise anyone if Hasler finds the right time to drag his team out of its slump.
Game on. Data off.
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