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Origin hopefuls given final chance to press claims in top-of-the-table clash at Penrith
There are several intriguing sub-plots to Saturday night's Panthers verses Dragons game. Most importantly, the match will pit arguably the two best sides of the competition thus far against each other. While Penrith haven't faced the toughest opposition in their opening 11 rounds of the year, their 8-3 record is still highly impressive given their extensive injury toll. Regular hooker Peter Wallace remains on the sidelines this week with the promising Sione Katoa retaining his spot in the No. 9 jersey ahead of the equally capable Wayde Egan. While Penrith's spine of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, James Maloney, Nathan Cleary and Katoa may not be as settled as the Dragons', the return of Cleary from injury last week was seamless and suggests the quartet should have minimal issues this weekend. Another interesting element of Saturday night's game is that it presents several players with the final chance to push for an Origin jersey. The majority come from both teams' forward packs with limited spots up for grabs. From Penrith, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, James Tamou and Trent Merrin will all look to prove themselves against some of the best big men in the competition. The underrated Isaah Yeo deserves a sky-blue jersey yet is unlikely to receive one given how much of his great works goes unnoticed within mainstream media. Campbell-Gillard appears the most likely of the four to gain Origin selection given his age and aggression. Meanwhile, the in-form Tyrone Peachey looks set to claim the team's utility position after an electric start to 2018. Maloney and Cleary are the obvious choices in the halves, yet coach Brad Fittler seems to also be considering Luke Keary and Mitchell Moses, with the latter's' possible selection particularly confusing. Other sub-plots include the opportunity for Penrith to assert themselves as genuine premiership contenders and a potential sell-out crowd at Panthers Stadium. The Panthers have won 11 of their past 12 games at their home turf.
The Dragons have few doubters anymore after a dominant 9-2 start to 2018. However, their 24-10 loss to the Rabbitohs a fortnight ago means that a victory over the high-flying Panthers would ensure any remaining critics are silenced. Paul McGregor's men were not at their best when they took down the Raiders 25-18 last week yet the Dragons coach would have still been pleased that they were able to win despite struggling for fluency in attack in the first half. This week presents a much bigger challenge for not only the Dragons but Penrith too as both sides are the strongest defensive teams in the competition. Therefore, points may be at a premium so do not be surprised if we see more penalty goals than tries on Saturday night. Given their strong recent form, the Dragons have several players in the mix for an Origin guernsey. For New South Wales, Jack de Belin, Tyson Frizell, Tariq Sims and Paul Vaughan will all be vying for a spot up front while Cameron McInnes and Euan Aitken will also be hoping to be rewarded for their start to 2018. Halfback Ben Hunt is the sole Queenslander contending for a spot in Kevin Walters' side. The battle up front is likely to be the main advertisement for this week's clash, however, there are several other positional duels that also make this the clear game of the round. Dragons flyer Matt Dufty comes up against Penrith speedster Dallin Watene-Zelezniak while the outing may also be decided by the dominance of the playmakers in the No. 6 and 7 jerseys. All this makes for very fascinating viewing.
Last meeting: Round 25 2017 - Panthers 14 Dragons 16
The Dragons claimed a hard-fought 16-14 win over the Panthers in Penrith late last season to keep their flagging finals hopes alive.
Who to watch: The match-up between both sides' forward packs will be an absolute beauty and is worth the price of admission alone.
Trent Merrin will be looking to build upon his strong form as of late against James Graham, who has proven to be an astute buy for McGregor's men this year. Meanwhile, the battle between Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Paul Vaughan will be intense given both are very aggressive and passionate team players.
Corey Harawira-Naera and Tyson Frizell are two of the best line runners in the game. Isaah Yeo is a determined runner of the ball and this week he comes up against Tariq Sims, whose one-on-one steal in last year's win over Penrith was the match-winner.
Finally, the barnstorming James Fisher-Harris faces his toughest test yet against the powerful Jack de Belin. If all of that doesn't get you excited for Saturday night's game I am not sure what will. Big hits are guaranteed.
The favourite: The Dragons are favoured to extend their lead at the top of the ladder.
My tip: The Rabbitohs' forward pack stood up to the Dragons' big men a fortnight ago and the Warriors did similar earlier in the year. Penrith do have advantage on the bench to overcome the St. George Illawarra big men but it is no guarantee. Both sides are evenly matched across the park. Ultimately, it will come down to which halves pairing is stronger at taking control of the contest. In a tight call, it is the Maloney and Cleary for mine. Penrith by 2.
1. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 2. Christian Crichton 3. Tyrone Peachey 4. Dean Whare 5. Tyrone Phillips 6. James Maloney 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Trent Merrin 9. Sione Katoa 10. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 11. Corey Harawera Naera 12. Isaah Yeo 13. James Fisher-Harris 14. Wayde Egan 15. Jack Hetherington 16. Viliame Kikau 17. James Tamou
1. Matthew Dufty 2. Nene Macdonald 3. Euan Aitken 4. Timoteo Lafai 5. Jason Nightingale 6. Gareth Widdop 7. Ben Hunt 8. James Graham 9. Cameron McInnes 10. Paul Vaughan 11. Tyson Frizell 12. Tariq Sims 13. Jack de Belin 14. Jeremy Latimore 15. Kurt Mann 16. Leeson Ah Mau 17. Blake Lawrie
Referees: Gerard Sutton, Chris Sutton; Sideline Officials: Nick Beashel, Rickey McFarlane; Video Referees: Jared Maxwell, Ben Galea;