Round 8: Raiders v Panthers preview
Former grand final foes head back to the bush
Squandering a strong start last Sunday to go down to Manly, 24-20, at Lottoland, the Raiders will be eager to return to regional New South Wales, having last taken an NRL match to Cootamundra in 1998 against the Gold Coast Chargers.
With McDonalds Park previously hosting the recently defunct City v Country fixture four years ago, Saturday afternoon will be the first time a premiership match has been played in Wagga since the Roosters and Chargers faced off at Eric Weissel Oval in the first year of the National Rugby League competition.
Sitting in fourth position with five wins over the opening seven rounds, coach Ricky Stuart has enjoyed his best start to a season since coming off a grand final win in his rookie campaign with the Roosters.
While it would be premature to declare the Raiders as contenders given the form shown by the Roosters, Storm and Rabbitohs over the first two months, under Stuart's coaching the Tricolours reached the premiership decider in 2003 and 2004 with the same number of early season wins enjoyed by the Green Machine in 2019.
Losing try-scoring specialist Jordan Rapana with injured ribs, rookie Bailey Simmonson will return to the top grade after debuting in the opening round, while Hudson Young and Corey Horsburgh come onto the bench in place of Emre Guler and Jack Murchie.
Unable to get the better of South Sydney despite dominating possession in last Friday's 22-18 loss at home, the Penrith Panthers will be intent on breaking away from the seven teams locked on four competition points as they look to arrest a three-match losing streak.
Languishing ahead of Canterbury-Bankstown and North Queensland in 14th position as a result of the second-worst attack and fourth-worst defence, coach Ivan Cleary will be hoping the positive strides taken from the loss to the Rabbitohs paves the way for a much-improved performance against the early season dark horses.
On track to equal their longest winning streak against the Raiders having claimed victory in the past four meetings, Saturday afternoon will mark the third time the 1990/91 grand finalists have clashed in regional New South Wales following two last-gasp wins by the Panthers in the Bathurst during Anthony Griffin's tenure.
Opting to keep the same squad that went down at Panthers Stadium last week, Caleb Aekins has retained his place at fullback after running for over 200 metres against South Sydney.
Who to watch: Having made his first grade debut as a teenager in 2010, Joseph Leilua will bring up his 200th appearance in the NRL on Saturday afternoon. Enjoying tremendous fortune throughout the decade to play in a grand final, represent City Origin, dominate the international arena with Samoa and claim the Dally M Centre of the Year title twice, the 27-year-old has proven himself to be a powerhouse across stints with the Roosters, Knights and Raiders. Crossing for a hat-trick when he faced the Panthers last August, expect Leilua to receive plenty of early ball as he strives to get the better of Waqa Blake in a key personal duel.
In a short space of time Viliame Kikau has gone from a fringe first grade prop to one of the most destructive second rowers in the game today. Missing the start of the season with a knee injury sustained in the trials, the 24-year-old Fijian international has provided the Panthers with a much-needed attacking spark upon return, including a solo effort against South Sydney reminiscent of Fuifui Moimoi's effort in the 2009 grand final. Facing off against the Raiders mobile forward pack, Kikau will relish the opportunity to go against English import John Bateman in a contest of size versus tenacity.