Round 14: Rabbitohs v Panthers preview
Souths on the slide face Panthers on the pounce.
A couple of weeks ago, a glance at this fixture would have been a tipster's dream. The Bunnies were cruising, having lost just one match (and then only by one point, mind you), and Penrith were in all sorts of trouble after having lost five straight and at one point had sunk to last place beneath both Canterbury and the Gold Coast.
Fast forward to today and the fortunes are completely reversed. Souths have been ravaged by both injury and the spectre of State of Origin, and that effect continues into Saturday's contest despite the returns of Cody Walker and Kyle Turner from respective injuries. They've dropped their last two games to the Eels and Knights and now face the prospect of losing two of their three Burgii to injury on top of already-sidelined half Adam Reynolds.
Casting an eye out to the foot of the mountains, one could say everything's coming up Milhouse. They broke their losing streak with a courageous win over top-eight hopefuls Manly, then upset the Roosters in back-to-back home games in front of the Panthers Stadium faithful.
The belief that comes with such wins will serve the Panthers well on Saturday as they trek the journey along the M4 to visit the Bunnies at ANZ, and its with this in mind that coach Ivan Cleary has retained the same 17 players who got the job done over the Roosters on Sunday.
South Sydney of course aren't so lucky - with both Sam and Tom Burgess out with injury (the latter also suspended), they've assembled somewhat of a bit-part lineup. Luckily they have Cody Walker (five-eighth) and Kyle Turner (centre) back in the lineup, while Alex Johnston is listed in the reserves as an outside chance of returning early from injury.
This match will mark the 92nd meeting between the sides, with South Sydney winning 50 to the Panthers 39, three matches drawn. The Bunnies have also been victorious in seven of the last ten matches between the sides dating back to 2012.
Who to watch: The battle of NSW's current Origin halves will be of significant interest in this one. Cody Walker misses last Friday's loss to Newcastle after failing to back up from Game 1, but will be keen to put in a solid 80 minutes to impress selectors ahead of Game 2 the following Sunday and ensure his selection.
On the other side of the coin there's Penrith half Nathan Cleary. Big question marks popped over his spot in the NSW side but a strong performance against the Roosters will have Fittler thinking twice if indeed he was planning to dump him from the lineup. With neither Walker or Cleary's spots necessarily safe for Game 2 - the performances and outcome on Saturday could be decisive, and adds an intriguing layer to an already enticing match.
My tip: It's tough to see the Rabbitohs losing a third straight game, and with Penrith no longer having the cushioning value of Panthers Stadium after a victorious fortnight at home, this will likely be the week they falter. The presence of Walker returning in the halves - even without Reynolds - should be enough to guide the Bunnies to a win. Rabbitohs by 4.