Penrith Panthers v Newcastle Knights – Round 23, 2018 – Match Preview

Penrith Panthers v Newcastle Knights
Panthers Stadium – Saturday, 3.00pm

Among the varying reasons that led the Penrith Panthers to dismiss Anthony Griffin less than a month out from September, the concerning trend of consistently having to fight back from large deficits was hoped to be resolved following the appointment of Cameron Ciraldo as interim coach.

While the Panthers were able to secure a last-gasp victory for the third consecutive week against the Titans, their inability to produce a consistent 80-minute showing looks set to have major ramifications when facing off against the NRL elite over the coming weeks.

Managing to produce comprehensive performances against early season heavyweights St. George Illawarra and New Zealand, the Panthers have shown their ability to outplay opponents from the opening whistle through to the full time siren, but with recent performances highlighting severe deficiencies against top eight teams such as Brisbane and Cronulla, along with less than impressive showings opposite a trio of out-of-contention sides, the Penrith playing group will need to rediscover their best if they are to realise the boundless potential present in their squad.

Facing off against a Newcastle outfit waiting for the season to draw to a close, the Panthers should have no shortage of motivation in delivering a strong performance in their final home appearance this season, with a win all but assuring them of a top four finish.

Losing rookie prop Jack Hetherington through his third suspension incurred in less than half a season of first grade, James Tamou will return from injury as his replacement, while in the wake of several disappointing performance brought on by persevering with injury, James Maloney has been rested with Tyrone May to serve as a short-term alternative in the halves.

Having spent the past two years fighting to avoid the wooden spoon over the closing rounds of the season, the Newcastle Knights have struggled in the lack of direction present as 2018 draws to a close.

Achieving the bare minimum of finishing above 16th position following three successive wooden spoons, the squandered opportunity to press for the finals following the return of Mitchell Pearce has seen the Knights perform with the best of intentions, but a lack of sustained desire over the past fortnight.

Willing in defeat against the Warriors last Friday, the opportunity to upset the preparations for finals bound teams such as Penrith should provide coach Nathan Brown with the incentive needed to motivate his players to approach Saturday’s fixture in the right state of mind, but whether the competition also-rans are capable of maintaining the intensity needed to prevail appears unlikely given the Panthers’ ability to conjure points with results seemingly beyond doubt.

Enduring a difficult run against Penrith in recent seasons with just one win from eight contests held since 2014, the reduced stakes at play could prove beneficial in energising their attack which has managed five tries or more in just 14% of matches played during Nathan Brown’s tenure at the club. While the same attacking statistic away from Newcastle reads slightly more favourably at 22%, a damning statistic that the Knights will need to overcome in order to emerge with two competition points lays in the near non-existent number of instances where they have posted five tries against a top eight team when playing away from home – just once since 2016.

Retaining the same 17 players that succumbed to the Warriors in Auckland last Friday, Nick Meaney could be a late inclusion given concerns around Kalyn Ponga’s fitness, while Pasami Saulo has been retained on the bench following a strong showing on debut.

Key Stats

  • Set to clash for the 47th time three decades on from the inaugural Penrith v Newcastle meeting, the Knights will be hoping to extend their overall advantage having claimed 23 wins, 20 losses and 3 draws since 1988.
  • Dominating recent history against Newcastle with seven wins from eight meetings contested since 2014, the Panthers will fancy their chances of another high scoring affair after outscoring the Knights 100-20 in the past three meetings held in Western Sydney.
  • With Penrith set to play their final home match of the season on Saturday afternoon, the comeback kings will have high hopes of continuing their 70% success rate in the fixture dating back to the formation of the NRL two decades ago.

 Players with a Point – Tyrone May v Jamie Buhrer
As one of many players to progress through the well-established development pathways former coach Anthony Griffin assumed direct credit for, Samoan international Tyrone May looks set to play a vital role in the Panthers’ run towards September. Slowly finding his feet after returning from major surgery required following last season’s semi final loss to Brisbane, the 22-year-old’s utility value shapes as a major point of difference among the sides vying for the premiership. Most comfortable at stand-off, but adept at hooker, lock and in the centres, May’s skillset should come to the fore on Saturday afternoon with the opportunity to make a statement as a starting player in the absence of James Maloney.

Having won grand finals and featured in representative football for New South Wales, the experience possessed by Newcastle utility Jamie Buhrer has been invaluable during a testing period for the club. Featuring exclusively off the bench in 2018, the 28-year-old has been largely overshadowed on the field by emerging back rowers Lachlan Fitzgibbon and Mitchell Barnett; but in a sign of the former Manly premiership winner’s value, the development of the club’s younger players is exactly what Buhrer was signed by Nathan Brown to achieve. Likely to be re-signed by the Knights to continue the improving strides made in recent times, the prospect of finishing the year on a nudie run won’t deter the underrated forward from going about his usual role as a consummate professional.

The Verdict
With inconsistency throughout matches being the story of the season for both sides in 2018, the outcome of Saturday’s fixture should be largely determined by the Panthers’ approach to avoiding another slow start. Possessing the ability to go all the way this season, the Panthers should prove too strong, but with the Knights showing a knack for hanging in games an upset could be in the offing should the home side fail to address their well-known shortcomings.

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