Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent
Wests Tigers v Panthers
Sunday, 3pm (AEST)
If you make the wise decision to walk into the romantic and historic confines of Leichhardt Oval this Sunday afternoon, chances are you'll be treated to one hell of a game of rugby league.
While our tastebuds prepare for the final feast that is Origin III on Wednesday week, the entree will be played between two of the League's purring cats in the Panthers and the Tigers.
Both are 2014 surprise packets that have engineered their way into the top eight; both have captured the stubborn hearts and minds of western Sydney with refreshing roster makeovers and styles of play; and both are driven by an overdue push into September football that is realistically well in their grasp.
All this, played in the backdrop of that old Leichhardt hill, makes this clash arguably the game of the round.
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary, whose side had their five-game winning streak snapped by the Warriors in a 30-20 defeat in New Zealand last week, has been forced into one change, re-calling wingman Kevin Naiqama in place of NSW Resident Isaah Yeo.
Things are a bit more complicated for Tigers coach Mick Potter, who has retained ring-in fullback Blake Austin in the No. 1 after he performed admirably for the injured James Tedesco in their 19-18 thriller over the Raiders last Saturday.
Veteran three-quarter Keith Lulia comes in for Tim Simona (mouth injury), back-up Joel Luani replaces Origin rake Robbie Farah, while forwards Dene Halatau, Sitaleki Akauola and Jack Buchanan are fresh faces on a new-look bench.
Get your ticket to NRL Round 17Watch Out Tigers:
Panthers bench prop Jeremy Latimore has quietly worked his way into becoming one of the most significant cogs in Cleary's engine room. The only player in the forward pack to have played every game this season, Latimore leads the team in hit-up metres with 1178m, including a team-high and season-high 143 against the Warriors last week. He's arguably Penrith's most consistent performer this year.
Watch Out Panthers: Penrith are going from the lowest utilisers of dummy-half running in the Warriors to the biggest exponents in the Tigers. The joint-venture club averages a league-high 22.5 runs from the play-the-ball, over double the 10.7 from the Warriors. Problem is their most dangerous weapon around that ruck, Robbie Farah (109 dummy-half runs), is away on Origin duty, although they still have David Nofoaluma (39), Pat Richards (26) and Blake Austin (26) to help out.
Plays To Watch: Twice against the Raiders the Tigers employed a cross-field kick that ended in tries to wingmen Nofoaluma and Richards. Rookie halfback Luke Brooks has shown that he can put the ball on a dime – he's kicking game against Jamie Soward will be a joy to watch.
Meanwhile, Penrith's sweeping movements involving two lead runners and fullback Matt Moylan out the back was used early and often against the Warriors. And while it didn't exactly come up trumps, they barely budged from the game plan.
Where It Will Be Won: The Tigers concede a league-leading 8.3 penalties per game, while the Panthers force a league-leading 10-3 errors from their opponents. If the home side can turn both those in their favour, then they'll have a decent chance of winning the game. The kicking games of both Brooks and Soward will be key.
What Are The Odds: There's slightly more money taken on the Tigers ($2.95) at Sportsbet.com.au –they are a big price considering they're playing at Leichhardt Oval. Panthers are currently $1.38. Surprisingly, Tigers 13+ is the favoured margin.
The History: Played 26; Wests Tigers 11, Penrith 14, drawn 1. The Tigers are on a remarkable seven-game winning streak against their feline opponents, dating all the way back to August 2010. But check out this scary fact: in six of the seven losses, the Panthers have been held to a rather haunting 18 points each time. The one remaining loss? It was a shut-out. (Note: the last game played between these two at Leichhardt Oval was in 2009, when the Panthers won 26-10, the fourth of five straight victories over the Tigers.)
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Adam Gee; Video Referees – Jared Maxwell & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed, 3pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: One team loses its best two players to Origin, while the other is just about at full strength. So on paper alone, the Panthers are four-point favourites.