Broncos v Panthers preview

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Brisbane Broncos v Penrith Panthers Friday 7:50pm at Suncorp Stadium

Panthers bolstered by returning stars as Broncos look to consolidate top eight spot

A fortnight ago we were talking about the Brisbane Broncos as premiership contenders after they dismantled the Titans 34-0. The next week, they were suddenly in danger of dropping out of the eight after they were thumped 26-6 by the Warriors. Such is the nature of this year's unpredictable competition.

The loss was compounded by a potentially season-ending ankle injury to promising backrower Jaydn Su'A. Fortunately, the Broncos have some of the best young forwards in the competition, with Tevita Pangai-Junior (hamstring) returning in his place. 

A big improvement will be needed from Wayne Bennett's men though, as they prepare for a rejuvenated Panthers outfit. The Broncos missed 42 tackles in last week's defeat to the Warriors and will have an even harder job trying to contain the likes of Waqa Blake and Viliame Kikau. 

Prior to the week's loss, Brisbane had won seven of their last nine, so it isn't as if they are in terrible form. However, they will want to quickly bounce back after both the Raiders and Tigers nabbed wins last week. 

It won't be easy though against a Panthers side boosted by the return of several key players. State of Origin series-winning halves James Maloney and Nathan Cleary are back after a well-earned rest, while fellow New South Wales teammate Tyrone Peachey also returns on the bench. 

The biggest news is the long-awaited comeback of winger Josh Mansour after an ugly collision with Gold Coast flyer Anthony Don left the Penrith powerhouse with several facial fractures. Fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak also makes a shock return from a hamstring injury. 

The young Panthers were gallant in defeat last week, eventually falling to the Sharks 24-12. The defeat was to be expected though, given that the mountain men fielded the most inexperienced side of 2018. 

Rookie fullback Caleb Aikens impressed on debut, running for 303 metres, the most of any debuting player in NRL history. Fill-in halves Jarome Luai and Tyrone May were also strong in attack, with the former scoring two tries and bamboozling opposition defence with his fancy footwork.

However, Penrith desperately needed composure and direction in attack, something that the return of Maloney and Cleary should bring. The loss saw the Panthers fall out of the top four for the first time since round three, so there will be no lack of motivation for Anthony Griffin's men as they look to reassert themselves as premiership threats. 

Last Meeting: The Panthers will be looking for revenge after the Broncos claimed a 13-6 win in last year's sudden-death semi-final at Suncorp Stadium.  

Who to watch: The Broncos looked flat last week and will be hoping the return of James Roberts is the spark they need. Roberts was rested from the clash with the Warriors and will come back on Friday night with intentions of again terrorising Penrith's edge defence. Brisbane held a slender 6-0 lead after 45 minutes in last year's final before Roberts tore through the sea of black to extend the home side's lead to 12. The electric centre didn't get a chance to showcase his blistering speed in the Origin arena and will find it hard to do so this week when he faces off against Penrith's speedster Waqa Blake. 

Panthers fans will be hoping halfback Cleary steps up in the coming weeks as their side looks to re-enter the top four. After Cleary went down in round three with a knee injury, Maloney was tasked with taking total control of Penrith's attack and went on to win five of his next seven games in charge. Once Cleary returned, however, he has seemed to have taken a backseat to the more experienced Maloney. The 20-year-old's dangerous running game has disappeared and while the temptation is to simply follow Maloney's orders, Cleary needs to trust himself and take more responsibility. 

Favourite: The Broncos are slight favourites, most likely because of their home ground advantage. 

Tip: The Panthers are getting closer to finally being full-strength and their returning stars should guide them to a big win on Friday. Penrith by 14

5. Jamayne Isaako 2. Corey Oates 3. James Roberts 1. Darius Boyd 4. Jordan Kahu 6. Anthony Milford 7. Kodi Nikorima 15. Joe Ofahengaue 9. Andrew McCullough 10. Sam Thaiday 11. Alex Glenn 12. Tevita Pangai Junior 13. Josh Mcguire 8. Matthew Lodge 14. Kotoni Staggs 16. Korbin Sims 19. David Fifita

18. Jarome Luai 2. Josh Mansour 3. Waqa Blake 4. Dean Whare 5. Christian Crichton 6. James Maloney 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Trent Merrin 9. Sione Katoa 10. James Tamou 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Isaah Yeo 13. James Fisher-Harris 14. Tyrone Peachey 15. Corey Harawira-Naera 16. Jack Hetherington 17. Moses Leota

Referees: Ashley Klein, Chris Sutton; Sideline Officials: Michael Wise, Nick Beashel; Video Referees: Jared Maxwell, Ben Galea;

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