Round 17: Panthers v Titans preview
A month or so ago, this may well have been a playoff for the wooden spoon.
Don't get me wrong - the Titans are still locked firmly in cellar territory and need results to avoid their second wooden spoon since they were admitted to the NRL in 2007.
But on the flip side, Penrith are on fire. In Round 11 the Panthers turned their shocking form line around with a 16-10 upset win over rivals Parramatta at Bankwest Stadium, and followed it up with four more wins, each involving a field goal and the last three seeing them finish with 19 points.
The boot of James Maloney hasn't been the only positive, the Panthers' defence has been made of far sterner stuff in recent weeks - points have remained at a premium in attack but it's their on-line tenacity which has impressed.
This game is fairly simple in terms of the needed outcomes - Penrith need a win to stay in the race for the eight, while the Titans simply need to keep their head above water.
A look at teamlists, and the hosts will have the same seventeen with a small handful of changes. Dean Whare starts in the centres, which sees Isaah Yeo move into the back row and Frank Winterstein switch back to the bench. Blues rep and injured halfback Nathan Cleary is listed in the reserves in case he overcomes the ankle injury that has prevented him from playing since mid-way through the second Origin match.
The Titans will welcome back Dale Copley (centre) from injury while Jack Stockwell will start at prop, Jarrod Wallace therefore moving to lock and Jai Whitbread & Will Matthews dropping to the bench. Jesse Arthars is the player to miss out, pushed back to the reserves list.
Who to watch: They weren't the first-choice fullbacks when 2019 kicked off - but Dylan Edwards and AJ Brimson have made the #1 jumpers at their respective clubs their own. Edwards had a bumpy ride for Penrith as now-Bulldog Dallin Watene Zelezniak dipped in and out of form and favour, but will be buoyed by the fact his side's form has solidified in the time he's been able to lock down the role.
Brimson meanwhile has bounced around the Gold Coast lineup, appearing in all bar two of their fifteen matches so far this year - but only the last six at fullback. His opportunity came off the back of injury to veteran custodian Michael Gordon, and he's turned in solid performances since, including in victories over both Manly and Brisbane in the last five weeks.
The favourite: An in-form Penrith only have one real concern - the likely absence of Nathan Cleary - and as such are well backed to account for the 15th-placed Gold Coast side.
My tip: The absence of Cleary can be overlooked given Maloney remains in the side to assist rookie half Jarome Luai - but if Maloney fails to back up from Wednesday's Origin decider it's hard to see where Penrith's points come from. They'll then have to rely on their defensive prowess against a Titans outfit that is wildly unpredictable at best. So there's a double tip here:
Maloney plays - Panthers by 3.
Maloney doesn't - Titans by 4.