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Penrith look to put off-field dramas behind them against local rivals Parramatta
The Penrith Panthers enter the 2018 season under a cloud of uncertainty after high profile departures and rumours of player unrest dominated headlines in the new year. Sunday afternoon's clash, however, provides the Mountain Men with the perfect chance to emphatically disprove this speculation as they prepare to run out in front of a sold-out Panthers Stadium. While trial games typically mean little, Penrith's final pre-season hit out against a reserve grade Canterbury Bulldogs side would have left coach Anthony Griffin concerned. Despite naming a near full-strength outfit, the Panthers collapsed to a 24-10 loss. A hamstring injury to centre Dean Whare has forced the New Zealand International out of Sunday's fixture. However, his absence is offset by the surprising inclusion of fellow Kiwi winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, who overcame an ankle injury to be fit in time for the season opener. 2019 Titans recruit Tyrone Peachey replaces Whare in the No. 4 jersey.
The Parramatta Eels head into 2018 with lofty expectations of back-to-back Top Four finishes and will look to get their season off to the right start with victory in the Battle of the West. Recently the Eels have not fared too well against their Western Sydney rivals, however, as the Panthers have won 8 of the past 13 meetings between the two sides. Star fullback Clint Gutherson is still sitting on the sidelines with an ACL injury, prompting coach Brad Arthur to name speedster Bevan French as his replacement at the back. Meanwhile, the enigmatic Jarryd Hayne will line up in the Blue and Gold for the first time since 2014. In their only pre-season outing of 2018, the Eels comfortably accounted for the Knights 26-6.
Last meeting: Round 8 2017 - Eels 18 Panthers 12
A packed Panthers Stadium will be a glorious sight on Sunday afternoon for both sets of supporters as last year the local rivals were restricted to just one meeting with each other at a barren ANZ Stadium. Parramatta claimed victory in that Round 8 clash by 18 points to 12.
Who to watch: The battle of the fullbacks is set to light up Sunday afternoon's game. Dylan Edwards has secured the fullback position for the long term following the departure of local junior Matt Moylan and it is a role that the boom rookie thoroughly deserves. Edwards was one of Penrith's most consistent and dangerous performers last year, with 79 tackle busts, 12 line-breaks, six try-assists and two tries from 16 games. Edwards provides Penrith with the speed and power from the back that Moylan lacked and should combine nicely with new recruit James Maloney.
Bevan French was also one of Parramatta's most potent backline stars last year. Primarily playing on the wing, French finished his 2017 campaign with 50 tackle busts, 13 line-breaks, nine tries and five try-assists from 16 games. With Gutherson (arguably Parramatta's best last year) absent for the opening rounds of the season, it is up to French to emulate the skill that the former Sea Eagle contributed to the Parramatta side last year.
The favourite: Home ground advantage is likely the reason for Penrith's slim favouritism with the betting companies.
My tip: Parramatta appear the more settled of the two sides and should overcome a shaky Penrith outfit. Eels by eight.
1. Dylan Edwards 2. Josh Mansour 3. Waqa Blake 4. Tyrone Peachey 5. Dallin Watene Zelezniak 6. James Maloney 7. Nathan Cleary 8. James Tamou 9. Peter Wallace 16. Moses Leota 17. James Fisher-Harris 12. Isaah Yeo 13. Trent Merrin 10. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 11. Viliame Kikau 14. Corey Harawera Naera 15. Sam McKendry
1. Bevan French 2. Josh Hoffman 3. Michael Jennings 4. Jarryd Hayne 5. Kirisome Auva'a 6. Corey Norman 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Daniel Alvaro 9. Cameron King 10. Tim Mannah 11. Manu Ma'u 12. Tepai Moeroa 13. Nathan Brown 14. Beau Scott 15. Brad Takairangi 16. Suaia Matagi 17. Kane Evans
Referees: Ashley Klein, Matt Noyen; Sideline Officials: Brett Suttor, Nick Beashel; Video Referees: Jared Maxwell, Luke Patten;