Round 8: Wests Tigers v Panthers preview
Tigers tackle Panthers in the battle for Sydney's west.
Last Sunday's win over the hapless Bulldogs saw the Tigers register back-to-back victories for the first time this season and leapfrog the more fancied Sea Eagles and Raiders into sixth place.
Since last month's costly fade out against the Titans, Michael Maguire's men have shown glimpses of perfection either side of the ball highlighted by their 13 tries in the past fortnight.
Ironically, it was the now vanquished Benji Marshall who put the Panthers to the sword when the sides last met. That was in the Magic Round last season, now young Storm recruit Harry Grant is pulling the strings, exceeding the expectations of many with last week's classy effort propelling him to outright second on the Dally M leader board.
Averaging 25 points a game, attack hasn't been a problem for Wests and with Josh Reynolds buoyed by selection security, Maguire will be hoping the wily playmaker's energy inspires a repeat of last week's unity in defence.
At the selection table, there was doubt over Thomas Mikaele's recovery from a knee injury suffered against Canterbury, but he's been named in an unchanged line-up. Russell Packer joins an extended bench following a two-game suspension.
After consecutive victories Ivan Cleary will be mindful of getting too far ahead of himself, but with the Sharks and Cowboys to follow, victory over the Tigers could set the Panthers on a season defining streak where they head the competition at the season midpoint.
Despite only one loss, the Panthers are far from the finished product. If not for numerous squandered opportunities, they would have put the Rabbitohs away much earlier than they did last week. But with a mobile pack and the steadying hand of Nathan Cleary, Penrith are capable of blasting clear with flair or knuckling down in an 80-minute grind.
The battle of the ruck in this one promises to be belter and could decide the result. In a head to head contest of the NRL's form hookers, the crafty Apisai Koroisau's astute timing against the power of Grant shouldn't be missed.
As games shift back to home venues where possible, the Tigers will seek comfort in the move from Campbelltown to Bankwest where they are unbeaten in 2020. For Penrith, they're unbeaten in three starts at Campbelltown while their only loss to date was at Bankwest - against the Eels back in round 5.
Last meeting: Round 9 2019 - Wests Tigers 30 Panthers 4
Who to watch: Just over a year ago David Nofoaluma was battling form and confidence in the NSW Cup before rounding out the season nearing his best in the top grade. Now after seven rounds in 2020, the Samoan rep's eight tries are second from the top and his 46 tackle breaks make him the NRL's most difficult to pin down. And with an uncanny nous of finding the stripe even from defence, the Panthers will need to be on high alert all night.
On the other side of the ground, Panther Brian To'o will patrol the right touchline as he continues to defy the second season blues. Despite only crossing the line just twice in 2020, Ivan Cleary has seen enough to extend the St Marys junior's contract until the end of 2023. With a bustling 177m per game, the 102kg powerhouse has made an art form of rolling the Panthers out of trouble. Now among the top five for post contact metres, his Tigers opposite Tommy Talau can expect a torrid evening.
My tip: Despite finding themselves sixth on the ladder the Tigers are yet to claim a top-eight scalp, while the second placed Panthers are flying under the radar despite having knocked over the premiers and outmuscling the Storm. Michael Maguire's team changes and stern words seem to be having the desired effect, but Penrith are a legitimate top four outfit and should prove too strong. Penrith by 14.