NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS V PENRITH – 8:00PM (NZT)/6:00PM (AEST), FRIDAY, AUGUST 24 @ MOUNT SMART STADIUM
The Storylines: Just when we thought it was safe to look forward to some finals footy…
The Warriors’ 2018 rollercoaster took a harrowing dip last Sunday via a 27-26 loss to lowly Canterbury, when a win would have confirmed a top-eight finish and kept them in the top-four mix. Their defence was substandard – particularly in the middle of the park – and the Warriors’ key players were unable to steer them home after they had clawed back to level.
A place in the finals is still highly likely, but if they lose their last two games and Wests Tigers win theirs it will come down to for-and-against. The Warriors have a 45-point advantage in that department but four games swinging the wrong way would almost certainly see it go down to the wire. And the Warriors won’t want to limp into the playoffs by default – they need to quickly regain momentum to have any hope of making a September impression.
Blake Green and Gerard Beale are out, but Tohu Harris returns from a two-month layoff in a huge boost. Mason Lino fills in at five-eighth, while Peta Hiku gets a reprieve at centre for the first time since his horror night at Penrith in Round 17.
Back rower returns but Green out for Friday night's clash with the Panthers at Mt Smart Stadium.
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) August 21, 2018
The Panthers have proved a bogey side for the Warriors in recent years. But the Panthers’ current state of flux works in the hosts’ favour this time around. After getting out of jail in three straight matches amidst the coaching drama that saw Anthony Griffin sacked, the Panthers came unstuck in a terribly flat 20-12 loss to out-of-contention Newcastle last Saturday.
Caretaker coach Cameron Ciraldo has changed up his spine, with Tyrone Peachey moving to five-eighth and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak reverting to fullback. Wayde Egan will get his first NRL start with Sione Katoa dropping out of the 17 and Tryone May dropping back to the bench at starting in the No.6 against the Knights. The Panthers also get Jamie Fisher-Harris back and Christian Crichton has been recalled on the wing.
The Warriors’ defence – which has been among the competition’s best and worst, depending on the week – is the key to this showdown. The Panthers can tear a team apart if given the opportunity, but they can become frustrated if their opposition sticks to the task, as the Knights proved.
Taking it out of fate’s hands with a round to go would be a dream for Warriors fans – but it’s inevitable there will be a few twists and turns across the 80 minutes if we’re to be afforded that kind of luxury.
The History: Played 40 – Panthers won 23, Warriors won 16, draws 1.
-The Panthers have won nine of their last 11 against the Warriors, including the last three straight.
-The Warriors have won two of the teams’ last three encounters at Mount Smart Stadium.
-Four of the last five encounters were decided by 1-12 margins, while the last six straight at Mount Smart were decided by 1-12.
-The Warriors are 5-5 at home in 2018; the Panthers are 6-5 away from Penrith.
-The Warriors are ranked 11th for attack (18.9 points per game) and seventh for defence (18.9); the Panthers are ranked seventh for attack (21.8) and sixth for defence (18.6).
3 Key Match-ups
Shaun Johnson v Nathan Cleary: The heat is on Johnson with Blake Green – having to do it all himself ultimately blunting his effectiveness in attack against the Storm a few weeks back. There were flashes of brilliance last week but he came up short in the important moments as the Bulldogs got up. Cleary was on Origin duty when these teams met a couple of months ago but the former Warriors ballboy has fond memories of playing on Mount Smart, scoring a match-winning hat-trick last season as Johnson limped off injured.
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) August 22, 2018
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck v Dallin Watene-Zelezniak: RTS is in the richest vein of form of his career and has firmed as the Dally M Medal favourite. You can take it to the bank that he’s going to have a blinder. DWZ, who was superb in Tuivasa-Sheck’s stead as Kiwis fullback midyear, is back in the No.1 jumper for the first time since playing a key role in the Panthers’ thrashing of the Warriors in Round 17. He’s one of the NRL’s real rocks-or-diamonds players – a genuine game-breaker prone to a horrific brain explosion. Advantage Warriors…but Dallin could carve up if the Panthers’ forwards lay a platform.
Tohu Harris v Viliame Kikau: Harris has been laid up since Round 16 and his return is a timely one for the Warriors – if he can pick up from where he left off. He can do plenty with the ball, but handling the devastating Kikau defensively will be his key assignment. Big Billy terrorised the Warriors’ right edge earlier this year in arguably the most impressive performance by an NRL second-rower of 2018. He’s sidestepped his visa issues and will be eager to swat off the recalled Hiku on multiple occasions once again.
"It's a bit strange." – Big T on having a similar injury to both knees in a matter of weeks.
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) August 22, 2018
Last Time They Met: Rookie Penrith halfback Jarome Luai dismantled the Warriors in a humiliating 36-4 loss at Panthers Stadium in Round 17.
Penrith have won three straight and five of the last six meetings. Penrith have posted 16-plus points in twelve consecutive matches against the Warriors including 34 or more in each of the last three. Six of the Panthers eight losses in 2018 have come via a 1-12 margin. The Warriors have won only one of their last eight against top 8 sides. The Warriors are 8-4 in night matches in 2018. Seven of the last 10 meetings have produced 40 or more points.
The Verdict: Confidence among Warriors fans plummetted following the loss to the Bulldogs, despite eyeing off a spot in the top four leading into the game after two impressive victories. But the Warriors are the masters of the bounce-back and they should have worked on their defensive failings during the week. Green’s absence is a concern but hopefully Harris’ return negates that and Lino and Hiku do their jobs. While perpetually dangerous, the Panthers’ recent troubles are as much a reason to be optimistic about the Warriors sealing a place in the finals as anything else. Warriors by 4
Around the grounds
Tigers v Sea Eagles: The Tigers are a surrogate second team for many Warriors fans, but with our finals hopes on tenterhooks we’d be pretty keen for Manly to pull off an upset and take the pressure off the the Warriors’ last two games. Tip: Either Team 6 & Under or Draw @ $2.80
Cowboys v Eels: Thurston’s Townsville farewell will ensure few other than Parramatta fans are cheering for the blue-and-golds in the second Friday game, which shapes as a wooden-spoon decider. Tip: Cowboys -5.5 @ $1.82
Raiders v Rabbitohs: Too little, too late for the Raiders as they finally closed out a tight game against the title-favourite Roosters in Round 23. But they could frustrate the minor premiership ambitions of another heavyweight this weekend. Some big ins for the Rabbitohs should be the decisive factor. Tip: Rabbitohs 12 & Under @ $2.90
Titans v Storm: The defending premiers are battling an injury and suspension crisis, while the Titans are coming off a stirring comeback against Manly. This will be close – and don’t be surprised to see a boilover. Tip: Titans +6.5 @ $1.87
Roosters v Broncos: We’ll be cheering on the Chooks in this one, with Brisbane locked on 28 points alongside the Warriors. Stunned by the Raiders last week and getting Keary back for this game, the Roosters should tough out a win at home. Tip: Roosters/Roosters @ $1.80
Sharks v Knights: The Knights did the Warriors a solid with a win at Penrith last week – could they do it again in the Shire? The Sharks, though, look like they’re warming up for a tilt at the premiership. Tip: Sharks 12 & Under @ $2.80
Dragons v Bulldogs: The Dragons regained form in the nick of time with a win over the desperate Tigers, but they need to keep that momentum going. The Bulldogs have knocked off the Tigers, Broncos and Warriors in the past month and would love another big scalp. I think they’ll get it. Tip: Bulldogs Win @ $2.35