5 Things to Watch for Tonight
After both sides posted last start wins, tonight's clash between the Penrith Panthers and Wests Tigers looms as one of the more intriguing games of the round.
When you add the family matchups and top eight standing between the two in to the mix, tonight's game certainly won't be without its fair share of storylines to keep an eye on.
Fortunately for you, we've cut it down to just the five biggest ones you need to know...
1. What will Nathan Cleary add in his return from injury?
We don't normally start here with an opposition player but it's hard to ignore Nathan Cleary this week as the superstar halfback makes his long-awaited from injury against the side his father coaches. Putting that angle aside, the focus for Wests Tigers will no doubt be on limiting Cleary's impact on the field, and cutting out his time to make decisions will be key in that regard. There's no denying that Cleary will have some sort of an impact on the game — particularly if he takes back over the goal-kicking — but the thing to watch will be whether he and James Maloney click from the opening whistle. With Maloney welcoming a new child in to the world recently, training time between the pair has been limited and it might take some time for the duo to find their combination again: who leads as the dominant playmaker and who plays off the back of that. In Rounds 1-2, it was Cleary running the show. In his absence, Maloney has handled the responsibility with aplomb. How will it look tonight with the pair back out there together again?
2. Will the Wests Tigers outside backs fire once again?
Their impact in the opening month of the year was somewhat unheralded, but Wests Tigers back five again showed their importance to the side last week with superb individual efforts against the North Queensland Cowboys. Including the halves, Wests Tigers back seven ran for nearly 1000 metres on the night and broke 22 tackles in total — something which certainly helped get the sets off to a good start and the team on the front foot. The challenge will be backing it up this week, and how the return of Kevin Naiqama impacts that. Wests Tigers looked good shifting the ball to both sides of the field last weekend — probably better than any other game this season — so it's definitely worth keeping an eye out for the attacking potency that could be on show tonight. Penrith might rank as a top five defensive team this season, but if Wests Tigers can create like they did last week, there should still be plenty of joy for the outside backs tonight.
3. Can the Panthers stop Russell Packer's energy?
In the battle of the big men tonight, the looming clash between Test hopefuls Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Russell Packer is undoubtably the highlight of them all — two players that bring plenty of energy on the field and inspire their teammates to do the same. Packer's return to the side last week certainly showed how influential his leadership is, and formally captaining the team tonight will only add to that. This matchup might not get the headlines that the halves, or even the Watene-Zelezniaks will on the night, but you'd think that whoever can gain the upper hand here will lay the platform for their side's success.
4. Which ex-Panther will have the biggest impact?
Travelling out to the foot of the mountains might be unfamiliar for some, but not Wests Tigers, with as many as six old faces potentially set to take to the field at Panthers Stadium. Kevin Naiqama, Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, Matt Eisenhuth and Elijah Taylor all featured in the Panthers system and have been named to start tonight's game, while Tim Grant has been retained in the squad as a reserve and could be a late inclusion. Throw in Coach Ivan Cleary and there's certainly no shortage of old boys in tonight's team to take on Penrith, and it'll be interesting to see which player has the biggest impact on their old club. The telling stat, however, is this: of all the ex-Panthers to feature in tonight's game, none have managed to record a win at Panthers Stadium since leaving the club. Hopefully that record changes tonight!
5. How much will the last five minutes matter?
It might not seem like a huge deal, but we're going out on a limb here and saying that this game will still be in the balance with five minutes to go. That's been the mantra of both sides so far this year with a plethora of close matches, and probably no team does a better job at winning late than Wests Tigers and Penrith. In total, Wests Tigers have had six matches this year decided by actions in the last five minutes, while the hosts have had five — meaning this one is every chance of going down to the wire again. Last year, it was Dallin Watene-Zelezniak's diving effort in the corner and Nathan Cleary's clutch conversion from the sideline that won it for the hosts; will it be the same tonight or can Wests Tigers stand up and win another one late on?