Panthers v Eels preview

Embed from Getty Images
Penrith Panthers v Parramatta Eels Sunday 4:05pm at Panthers Stadium

Is there a better way to start the season than a local derby at a full stadium in (hopefully) glorious sunshine?

Probably not. Kicking off Sunday's fixtures is the Western Sydney derby between Penrith and Parra to see who takes the early season bragging rights.

Out at Penrith it is a family act as Ivan Cleary has rejoined the club to reunite with son, Nathan as they search for a first title since 2003 for the proud Panthers. They have retained a majority of the side that finished fifth, and were bundled out in the second week of the finals, and will be hoping to break into the top four this season.

Can Cleary junior continue his progression with the consistent Maloney alongside him? Their backline is filled with game-breaking talents in Edwards, Whare, Waqa and Watene-Zelezniak (Dallin, that is) with a powerful forward pack led by a pair of representative props - although the loss of Villiame Kikau on the edge does tarnish that - but they should produce more scintillating football in 2019, and again feature in September action. 

2018 was annus horribilis for the Eels. They picked up another spoon and saw countless incidents which continued to batter their reputation. 2019 is looking up though - there is a new stadium which awaits, some talented signings in Blake Ferguson, Junior Paulo and Shaun Lane. Hopefully it might be the start of the tide turning in Parramatta. 

So, there is some talent to build from for the blue and gold, but the main question is can they improve on their six victories from last year? A lot of the answer to this conundrum lies on the shoulders of Mitchell Moses. The half has youngster Dylan Brown (pictured) to partner him this season with the rest of the spine of Clint Gutherson and another fresh face in Reed Mahoney at fullback and hooker respectively, so that backbone will take time to gel. 

Both contests last year were tight affairs, going the way of the men in the licorice allsorts. The visitors will be the underdog but as the cliches go - throw out the form book, especially after an arduous off-season. Let's get ready for some football.

Last meeting: Round 5 2018 - Eels 6 Panthers 12

Who to watch: The return of the king! Clint Gutherson returned from his ACL injury midway through 2018. In a turbulent season for the blue-and-gold, he scored six tries as part of his 44-point haul for the season. Having a full pre-season under his belt, ‘Gutho' stands behind a backline which includes Australian representatives Michael Jennings and Blake Ferguson, lifting some of the attacking weight off his shoulders, to allow him to play his natural game. 

Dylan Edwards won the fullback job for the Panthers in a duel against DWZ. The 23-year-old needs to solidify his spot at the back, improving on his modest return in 2018. He showed in patches the reasons he was touted as a talent through the ranks, and starting the Penrith sets off the right away, hopefully, also linking with the halves in attack.

The favourite: It's a derby so it will be close but I think Penrith will take the favourites tag slightly. The home side retained much of the 2018 team bringing some much-needed stability as they look to turn the hype from previous seasons in production. 

My tip: This one should be tight but I'm tipping the Eels to start 2019 on the right foot. Parramatta by 1.

1. Dylan Edwards 2. Josh Mansour 3. Dean Whare 4. Waqa Blake 5. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 6. James Maloney 7. Nathan Cleary 8. James Tamou 14. Wayde Egan 16. Moses Leota 17. Hame Sele 12. Isaah Yeo 13. James Fisher-Harris 10. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 11. Jack Hetherington 15. Tyrell Fuimaono 18. Jarome Luai

1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Michael Jennings 4. Brad Takairangi 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Daniel Alvaro 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Tepai Moeroa 11. Shaun Lane 12. Marata Niukore 13. Nathan Brown 14. Will Smith 15. Tim Mannah 16. Kane Evans 17. David Gower

Referees: Ashley Klein, Chris Butler; Sideline Officials: Nick Beashel, Matt Noyen; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy, Ben Galea;

Follow all the action LIVE in our Match Centre