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Tense rivals meet in potential Grand Final preview
After an inconsistent start to 2018, the star-studded Roosters appear to have finally found some rhythm having won five of their past six games. A victory on Friday night could see them enter the Top Four for just the second time this year. Despite their recent form, Trent Robinson's men are yet to fulfil their lofty potential and still have people doubting whether they are true premiership contenders in 2018. Last week's 18-16 win over the Knights would have pleased Robinson, yet he would have still been concerned by his side's inability to take complete control of the contest. It has been an issue for the Roosters on a number of occasions, with three of their past five wins being by a margin of just two points. Only a fortnight ago the Bondi boys had a similar issue when they held on for a 16-14 win over the Tigers and only a week later, a slow start saw them trail the Titans 14-6 at half time. The Tricolours have a much tougher opposition this week in the second-placed Panthers and coach Robinson will be demanding a much smarter and thoughtful 80-minute display from his troops.
Meanwhile, this week's game presents a much-needed challenge for Anthony Griffin's men. After dominating the table-topping Dragons 28-2 three weeks ago, the wounded Panthers were gifted with the bye the following round. While necessary given Penrith's well-documented injury toll, the pause saw the Panthers come out lethargic against the Raiders last week while their Origin stars looked overdone. Fortunately, as the good sides do, Penrith still surged to claim a thrilling 23-22 win. However, coach Griffin will be glad that his team are preparing for a quality side like the Roosters this week as it presents the perfect challenge to re-motivate the Mountain Men. Penrith fans will be hoping for a similar display to that presented against St. George Illawarra. The Panthers proved themselves true premiership contenders on that night and will need to do so again on Friday night without Viliame Kikau (leg).
Last meeting: Round 3 2017 - Panthers 12 Roosters 14
Who to watch: The Panthers have been decimated in their outside backs with Dylan Edwards, Josh Mansour and Waqa Blake all still currently on the sideline. The result is a makeshift backline that has performed admirably. However, they will have a new test this week defending Roosters sensation Latrell Mitchell. One of NSW's best in Origin Game 1, Mitchell's fancy footwork and pure strength will prove a handful for the Penrith defence, which ranks the best in the competition. If the Panthers can contain the Roosters centre (easier said than done) it will go a long way to securing the win.
Think back to the 2014 Finals Series. Jamie Soward had guided the Panthers on a fairy-tale run towards September, with the Mountain Men finishing the regular season in fourth position. In their Qualifying Final they came up against the Minor Premiers - the Sydney Roosters. Seen as mere cannon-fodder for the Tricolours, the Panthers looked like they would just fall short when Mitchell Pearce crossed over past the 70th minute mark to give his team a 18-12 lead. However, a brilliant flick pass from Dallin Watene-Zelezniak saw Dean Whare cross over and the Panthers went on to win 19-18. On that day ‘DWZ' was playing on the wing. Now, almost four years later, he is making a name for himself in the No. 1 position in the absence of Edwards. Watene-Zelezniak has proven a strong replacement for the regular Penrith fullback, with his explosive running style being a particularly impressive element of his game. In what is sure to be a tense contest, look for DWZ to provide the energy and intensity required to topple the Tricolours.
The favourite: Home ground advantage gives the Roosters slight favouritism here.
My tip: Penrith have the stronger forward pack while the Roosters have the more potent backline. Both sides have equally strong halves pairings. It makes for a tight call. However, the Panthers have proven themselves to be the smarter and more consistent footy side. Penrith by 2.
1. James Tedesco 2. Daniel Tupou 3. Latrell Mitchell 4. Joseph Manu 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Luke Keary 7. Cooper Cronk 8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves 9. Jake Friend 10. Dylan Napa 11. Boyd Cordner 17. Victor Radley 13. Isaac Liu 12. Mitchell Aubusson 15. Zane Tetevano 16. Kurt Baptiste 18. Nat Butcher
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. Kaide Ellis 16. Jack Hetherington 17. James Tamou
Referees: Ben Cummins, Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials: Brett Suttor, Kasey Badger; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy, Ben Galea;