SF 2: Panthers v Eels preview

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Penrith Panthers v Parramatta Eels Saturday 7:50pm at BB Print Stadium Mackay

Panthers fear straight-sets exit in the battle for Sydney's west

The Rabbitohs left Townsville with the spoils, but with the saloon doors still swinging Ivan Cleary fumbled his words. A rattled gibber of riddles, for the Panthers coach, the new script was still sinking in.

As far as feuds go it was a no contest, Cleary had just been pantsed by the master. Wayne Bennett planted his wily words weeks ago, but without Latrell Mitchell it was thought to be a moot point, the Rabbitohs were cooked.

In the end, the Panthers yelped louder than a bikie's three-legged dog. Their story of redemption had taken a twist. They still might rattle Bellamy's cage, just not in the grand final like many predicted.

Now on the streets of Mackay, it's do or die. Ten-gallon hats back-to-back with old foe Parramatta in the battle for Sydney's west.

And while Brad Arthur is no Bennett, alongside Cleary he might just be the smartest man in the room. Slandered for resting his best in a final round hiding to the mountain men, now in the second week of the finals, the Eels' advantage may yet prove to be fresh legs.

A rested Souths got the jump last week, and how good was Reagan Campbell-Gillard giving the Knights some old school whack. Ray Stone too, up and under the ribs.

Mitch Moses was full of running in his most complete game of the season. Sure, it was only against the seventh ranked Knights, but that's the innate danger at Arthur's disposal.

He knows the splutter in Rockhampton won't cut it this week, but as the only side to knock over premiers Melbourne twice this season, Parra are renowned for measuring their run.

For the Panthers, Dylan Edwards returns to fix their run and with Bond villain lookalike Moses Leota back managing the middle, the fullback could prove tough to contain.

The Eels look settled. Makahesi Makatoa is the only change, making way for Ryan Matterson who will wear the No.17 in a contest where the strike power of each bench is poised to cause headaches.

With Ivan's eyes still on free spins, Arthur will be sweating on the ambush. Still sporting a sneer from last season's straight-sets exit, the Eels coach will be reveling with the boot on the other foot. It's the unfinished business on both sides that promises to make this stoush one to savour.

Who to watch: Matt Burton couldn't even get a start when the competition kicked off. Considered a playmaker behind Origin pair Nathan Cleary and Jerome Luai, he's now stamped himself as one of the competition's premier centres with 16 tries. Blessed with size and the vision of a hawk he'll threaten the blue-and gold's all night, and if it's close, he's got the boot to finish it off just like he did in Round 16.

You have to love Blake Ferguson. A little over a month ago he was fumbling about in second grade, on the nose like last week's prawns. But in Rockhampton there he was, on one leg putting the Knights to the sword with two tries in his 14th finals match. Still chasing a contract, Fergie Ferg's infectious personality will lift the Eels, and outside young gun Will Penisini he's perfectly placed to land a 13th NRL season.

Favourite: With eight wins from the last 11 over the Eels, Penrith are favourites to meet Melbourne in the preliminary final. Bet with your head though, seven of those contests were decided by six points or less.

My tip: Last week was just the sixth loss for Penrith in two seasons. And while they missed the boat, only the brave will write them off after a rare hiccup. Parramatta will come wielding angry sticks in a fight to the death, but keep an eye on Edwards, his return will reignite the Panthers' season. Penrith by 4.

1. Dylan Edwards 2. Stephen Crichton 3. Paul Momirovski 4. Matt Burton 20. Brent Naden 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Moses Leota 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 17. Liam Martin 12. Kurt Capewell 13. Isaah Yeo 11. Viliame Kikau 14. Mitch Kenny 15. Scott Sorensen 16. Tevita Pangai Junior 19. Izack Tago

1. Clinton Gutherson 2. Haze Dunster 3. Viliami Penisini 4. Waqa Blake 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Ray Stone 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Marata Niukore 13. Nathan Brown 14. Will Smith 15. Isaiah Papali'i 16. Bryce Cartwright 17. Ryan Matterson 18. Makahesi Makatoa

Referees: Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials: Phil Henderson, Jon Stone; Video Referees: Grant Atkins;

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