Panthers v Dragons preview

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Penrith Panthers v St George Illawarra Dragons Friday 7:55pm at Panthers Stadium

Panthers eye off magnificent seventh win

Two months after hitting rock bottom with two wins from their opening ten matches, the Penrith Panthers will be out to solidify a place in the top eight by accounting for the St George Illawarra Dragons at Panthers Stadium on Friday evening.

Coming into the contest after accounting for the Gold Coast Titans, 24-2, in a dour affair last Friday, the Panthers have transformed their season with six straight wins to emerge as legitimate top eight contenders - a prospect few could have envisioned for a team ranked 16th at the end of Round 10.

Playing with renewed enthusiasm following the introduction of rookies Liam Martin, Brian To'o, Mitchell Kenny and Brent Naden, the improved form of James Maloney has also been especially telling with the veteran playmaker stamping his authority on a number of results during the middle-third of the season.

Holding a solid record against the joint venture with seven wins from 12 fixtures this decade, coach Ivan Cleary will be hoping the home ground advantage plays to his side's favour having won four of the past five clashes against the Dragons at Panthers Stadium.

Regaining Nathan Cleary for his first appearance since sustaining an ankle injury in Origin II, Jarome Luai drops to the bench with last week's debutant Jed Cartwright shifting to the extended squad.

Coming off a performance described by coach Paul McGregor as their "worst of the season", the Dragons will be desperate to improve in order to avoid the possibility of claiming the club's first wooden spoon.

Offering little resistance throughout last Sunday's 36-14 loss to Canberra at WIN Stadium, the Dragons will need to display greater defensive resolve after missing 54 tackles, along with improving their go-forward in light of every forward failing to run for over 100 metres.

Winning four in a row against Penrith prior to last year's 28-2 defeat at Panthers Stadium, the Dragons remain a mathematical chance of clinching a top eight berth despite managing just two wins from their past ten matches; however with the Bulldogs finding form and the Titans set to respond following Garth Brennan's dismissal, the joint venture faces the possibility of running last should results fail to improve over the final eight rounds.

Making a number of changes headlined by Darren Nicholls coming into the team in place of Ben Hunt (rested), veteran forward James Graham will make a welcome return after seven weeks on the sidelines, while in a personal milestone Tyson Frizell will play his 150th game in the NRL.

Last meeting: Round 12 2018 - Panthers 28 Dragons 2

Who to watch: Unable to break into the NRL during stints with Canberra and Newcastle, despite earning selection in the 2015 Under-20's Team of the Year, a return to the foot of the mountains has seen Brent Naden realise his first grade dream at age 23. Playing alongside current first graders James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota during his initial Penrith tenure, the Wellington Cowboys junior has been a star performer since debuting against the Sea Eagles, holding an unbeaten record while crossing for four tries. Showing his wares as a game-breaking strike player with a scintillating solo effort in New Zealand, look for Naden to make his mark on Friday night as the Panthers chase seven straight wins for only the fourth time in history.

Providing the Dragons with a spark of optimism in a season punctured by difficulties on and off the field, Mikaele Ravalawa has gone from strength to strength in his rookie campaign. Establishing himself as a permanent fixture on the right wing with nine tries from 15 appearances, the 21-year-old former Canberra lower grader has averaged over 100 metres per game, while making his international debut for Fiji last month. Contracted to the Red V until the end of next season, expect another strong showing from Ravalawa as he strives to follow in the footsteps of fellow Fijian speedsters Noa Nadruku, Akuila Uate, Semi Radradra and Suliasi Vunivalu by topping the NRL try-scorers list with a strong finish over the final eight rounds.

The favourite: Coming off the back of six straight wins and facing a side low on confidence, the Panthers are expected to prove too strong at home.

My tip: While the Dragons will be much improved in their defensive resolve following an indefensible performance, the attacking potential of the Panthers should be the difference. Panthers by 16.

1. Dylan Edwards 2. Josh Mansour 3. Dean Whare 4. Brent Naden 5. Brian To'o 6. James Maloney 7. Nathan Cleary 8. James Tamou 9. Mitch Kenny 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Frank Winterstein 13. Isaah Yeo 14. Wayde Egan 15. Jarome Luai 16. Moses Leota 17. Reagan Campbell-Gillard

1. Matthew Dufty 2. Jonus Pearson 3. Euan Aitken 4. Timoteo Lafai 5. Mikaele Ravalawa 6. Corey Norman 7. Darren Nicholls 8. Blake Lawrie 9. Cameron McInnes 10. Paul Vaughan 11. Tyson Frizell 12. Tariq Sims 13. James Graham 14. Josh Kerr 15. Korbin Sims 16. Patrick Kaufusi 17. Luciano Leilua

Referees: Grant Atkins, Jon Stone; Sideline Officials: Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski, Nick Morel; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy, Ben Lowe;

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