Round 19: Penrith v Brisbane preview
Before Penrith dropped back-to-back games against the Tigers and Sharks during the Origin period, the Broncos had come surprisingly close to shocking the Panthers in their last trip to Suncorp.
Once again on Saturday night Brisbane will be eyeing a big scalp and it will be on home turf again, with the relocation of the entire league seeing Penrith forced to sacrifice its home-ground advantage. For a team in premiership contention though it should not be a concern, particularly against a team that conceded 42 points against the Tigers last week. The Panthers were far from their best too in a 30-16 win over an injury-ravaged Warriors outfit.
Fortunately for them they welcome back Jarome Luai this week, seeing Matt Burton shift to the centres while Tyrone May remains in the halves. May excelled in the later stages of the game against the Warriors but needs to better assert himself on the contest when it is in the balance. The ball-playing of lock forward Isaah Yeo seemed to help free up more time and space for May. For the time being keeping him alongside Luai makes the most sense given it allows Burton to return to the centres ahead of Nathan Cleary's likely return next week.
The Panthers will not be tracking down the Storm on points differential so next week's top-of-the-table clash looms as the decisive factor in determining the minor premiership. Entering that game on the back of a dominant win over Brisbane would be the perfect injection of confidence that Penrith can match it with a relentless Melbourne outfit.
Meanwhile, once again the Broncos proved last week that we cannot declare they have genuinely turned a corner unless they have won two-straight games. Brisbane backed up an upset victory over Cronulla with a 42-24 defeat to the Tigers. It was the most points the Tigers have scored all season and proved once again that the Broncos can't solely rely on Payne Haas or the strike of Kotoni Staggs to get them home. The 26-18 win over the Sharks was a team effort but against the Tigers the same defensive resolve had disappeared.
"We were good against the Sharks - a lot of our defence is a mental thing," coach Kevin Walters said post-game.
"Their effort was good today, I just thought we were a bit soft mentally. When you do that at this level, you always get found out."
10 errors and a 6-1 penalty count did not help, heaping pressure on a Brisbane side that simply could not cope defending its own line.
Thomas Flegler and Jordan Riki have been promoted to the starting side after coming off the bench against the Tigers, with Rhys Kennedy and TC Robati back to the pine. Xavier Coates was rested following Origin III but has been listed on the reserves. The only other change sees Jesse Arthars drop to the reserves list, with Cory Paix the replacement on the bench.
Who to watch: Do yourself a favour and even if it is for a few sets just watch how Isaah Yeo plays his role in this Panthers team. Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai have both been missed but Yeo's absence during the Origin period went understated at times. As well as a defensive workhorse in the middle, Yeo has taken his game to new levels in the past year after developing a passing game. It allows him to take the ball right up to the line and present both a running and passing threat. Take his double-pump last week in the lead-up to the Liam Martin try as the perfect example. Look for Yeo to really test Brisbane's decision-making under pressure in defence.
If the Broncos are any hope on Saturday they need someone with a bit of grit and tenacity to take it to these plucky Panthers. Five-eighth Tyson Gamble is that man. He had a try assists and two linebreak assists last week against the Tigers. But Gamble's natural ability or skillset has never been his strongest asset. Instead, it is his determination and willingness to compete, including getting in the opposition's face. Gamble needs to take it to Penrith's own cheeky five-eighth in Luai and make it a personally running battle to try put the Blues playmaker off his game. It will be key to stifling one of Penrith's main attacking threats.
My tip: The Panthers were sluggish to open their last game against the Broncos. The return of Luai should give a much-needed energy boost and lead to a far more comfortable win. Penrith by 30.