2021 Rugby League World Cup squad lists
20 days ago | LeagueUnlimited Media
They were grand finalists last year and once again, the Penrith Panthers and South Sydney Rabbitohs are genuine contenders in the race for the premiership.
But the two competition heavyweights find themselves in very different positions heading into Thursday night's clash.
Like last year, South Sydney has caught fire in the second half of the season, winning six of their last seven games and scoring more than 25 points in all but two of them. It is no coincidence that the rich vein of form has coincided with fullback Latrell Mitchell's return from injury and the 25-year-old is certainly not backing down from the spotlight.
"Look over your shoulders, we're coming," warned Mitchell in an interview with Channel 9 after South Sydney's 26-0 shutout win over Parramatta.
Sure, the Rabbitohs can certainly pile on the points but even in the midst of their winning streak they were giving them up too, letting the likes of the Bulldogs and Knights score far too many tries. It was hard to take them seriously as genuine title threats but that changed last week, when they held Parramatta scoreless for the second time at Commbank Stadium, having won 38-0 back in 2020.
In a boost, Campbell Graham and Lachlan Ilias have been named to return, although Mitchell (groin) is under an injury cloud.
As for the Panthers, they were on the wrong end of a shutout last week, going down 16-0 to the Storm. While Melbourne's defence was a relentless brick wall, Penrith did not do itself any favours with predictable and slow-moving set plays inside the opposition red zone. The Panthers had 55 tackles inside Melbourne's 20 and while they did get over the line on a number of occasions, execution was lacking in the most important of moments.
Dylan Edwards returns at fullback in a timely plus this week, pushing Charlie Staines to the bench while Liam Martin (ankle) has also been named. Taylan May (shoulder) is also listed on the reserves and an outside chance of returning, although unlikely to be risked at this stage.
Penrith can officially secure the minor premiership with a victory on Thursday while South Sydney need to win to keep its top-four hopes alive.
Last meeting: Round 4 2022 - Panthers 26 Rabbitohs 12
Who to watch: Brandon Smith exposed a rare chink in Penrith's armour last week. The Panthers struggle at times to defend size and pace through the middle. The stocky forward had both and showed just how lethal it can be with a sensational individual try in the first half. Cameron Murray may not be as fast but he is pretty quick and hard to put down. Plus, with Damien Cook at hooker ready to pounce at retreating defenders, Murray's rapid play-the-balls could be key too. Put simply, when Penrith get frustrated in attack, it can lead to lapses of concentration in defence. Murray has a habit of sniffing out opportunities in the middle of the park and shapes as the biggest danger man for Penrith on Thursday.
As for the Panthers, they really need Jaeman Salmon to step up after an uneventful performance last week. With Sean O'Sullivan doing most of the general kicking and steering of the ship, Salmon is supposed to play a similar role to Jarome Luai, providing spark out on the edges. Instead though he has struggled to effectively inject himself into Penrith's attack and it was especially evident last week. Salmon touched the ball 38 times compared to a whopping 97 possessions for O'Sullivan, who was forced to take on the bulk of the playmaking. The week prior against Canberra, O'Sullivan (53) still got his hands on the ball more than Salmon (30) but it was far more even. With O'Sullivan dominating the touches, Penrith's attack has become predictable and far too sideways. Salmon needs to really take the line on more or connect with his outside men earlier to give them time and space to really test the defence.
The favourite: The Panthers usually know how to get the job done but the Rabbitohs' sparkling form has them as favourites for this one.
My tip: Honestly, this could be anything and may get really ugly for the defending premiers if they don't start fast. With the finals fast approaching, Penrith is at risk of looking too far ahead too early and last week's duck egg against Melbourne was hardly a confidence boost. South Sydney's attack is sharp at the moment and if the Bunnies get a few early tries, the floodgates may open. Rabbitohs by 20.
1. Latrell Mitchell 2. Alex Johnston 3. Isaiah Tass 4. Campbell Graham 5. Jaxson Paulo 6. Cody Walker 7. Lachlan Ilias 8. Tevita Tatola 9. Damien Cook 10. Daniel Suluka-Fifita 11. Keaon Koloamatangi 12. Jai Arrow 13. Cameron Murray 14. Taane Milne 15. Mark Nicholls 16. Siliva Havili 17. Hame Sele 18. Blake Taaffe
1. Dylan Edwards 20. Taylan May 3. Izack Tago 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Brian To'o 6. Jaeman Salmon 7. Sean O'Sullivan 8. Moses Leota 14. Mitch Kenny 10. Matt Eisenhuth 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Liam Martin 13. Isaah Yeo 9. Apisai Koroisau 16. Spencer Leniu 17. Charlie Staines 19. J'maine Hopgood 2. Sunia Turuva
Referees: Adam Gee; Sideline Officials: David Munro, Darian Furner; Video Referees: Ashley Klein;