The Wests Tigers head to the foot of the mountains to take on the second-placed Penrith Panthers at Panthers stadium on Thursday night.
TEAM FORM GUIDE
The Panthers returned to form last week in an impressive win over the Newcastle Knights. After a lot of slow starts this season, the Panthers finally started strong and raced to a 12-0 lead after just 15 minutes. The Knights fought hard but ultimately the Panthers were too strong and won 29-18 on the back of yet another James Maloney masterclass.
After losing three straight, the Tigers returned to the winner’s circle last Thursday night in a win over the North Queensland Cowboys. Luke Brooks and Benji Marshall again controlled the game perfectly, and fullback Corey Thompson continues to get better. The Tigers were able to take advantage of a poor Cowboys side and ended with a 20-12 win, a scoreline that could have been much bigger had their goal kicking been more accurate.
The Panthers welcome back their star halfback Nathan Cleary which pushes Tyrone Peachey into the centres and Isaah Yeo back into the second row, with Viliame Kikau dropping to the bench. Peter Wallace is out with injury and Sione Katoa will start at hooker. Wayde Egan and Jack Hetherington return to the bench, with Kaide Ellis and Jarome Luai dropping back into the reserves.
Despite a man-of-the-match performance a week ago, Mahe Fonua has been dropped with Kevin Naiqama returning from injury.
The Wests Tigers have been one of the biggest surprise packets in the competition so far this season and are currently sitting in the top eight despite being favourites for the wooden spoon. The Panthers have had to deal with a lot of injuries to key players this year but have already proven they are one of the competition heavyweights.
In a huge boost for the Panthers, Nathan Cleary returns to the side. James Maloney has been superb in his absence but there’s no doubt how important Cleary is to this team. At times, the Panthers have lacked direction without him, even with Maloney’s brilliant form. Cleary has one of the coolest heads in the competition at such a young age and will instantly make the Panthers a better team.
The Tigers were able to defeat a struggling Cowboys side last week but will need to be better against the Panthers at home. The Panthers aren’t going to make the same amount of errors as the Cowboys did and will be much better in attack, particularly with the return of Cleary.
Despite the injuries, the Panthers still boast one of the better forward packs in the competition. The Tigers will have to win the battle in the middle of the field but it won’t be easy, particularly with the likes of Viliame Kikau and James Tamou coming off the bench. Whoever wins the forward battle will go a long way to deciding this match.
A lot of talk will be about the battle between Nathan Cleary and Tigers coach Ivan Cleary, but the match-up to keep an eye on in this game will be between Cleary and his opposing halfback Luke Brooks. Brooks is finally playing to his potential in 2018, and has even been suggested as an option for the Blues No. 7 jersey. Cleary was almost a certainty to wear that jersey before he got injured back in Round 3.
All eyes will be on Cleary and if he can put in a starring performance then he will likely walk into the New South Wales side. However, if he is outperformed by Brooks, Blues coach Brad Fittler will have a lot of thinking to do.
Trent Merrin was an inspiration for his team last week, running for a match-high 165 metres after badly dislocating his finger just one week prior. Look for him to demand plenty of ball again and lead from the front.
Panthers: 1 Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, 2 Christian Crichton, 3 Tyrone Peachey, 4 Dean Whare, 5 Tyrone Phillips, 6 James Maloney, 7 Nathan Cleary, 8 Trent Merrin, 9 Sione Katoa, 10 Reagen Campbell-Gillard, 11 Corey Harawira-Naera, 12 Isaah Yeo, 13 James Fisher-Harris
Interchange: 14 Wayde Egan, 15 Jack Hetherington, 16 Viliame Kikau, 17 James Tamou
Reserves: 18 Jarome Luai, 19 Kaide Ellis, 20 Tyrone May, 21 Nick Tui-Loso
Tigers: 1 Corey Thompson, 2 David Nofoaluma, 3 Esan Marsters, 4 Kevin Naiqama, 5 Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, 6 Benji Marshall, 7 Luke Brooks, 8 Russell Packer, 9 Elijah Taylor, 10 Ben Matulino, 11 Chris Lawrence, 12 Robbie Rochow, 13 Matthew Eisenhuth
Interchange: 14 Alex Twal, 15 Jacob Liddle, 16 Michael Chee-Kam, 17 Sauaso Sue
Reserves: 18 Tim Grant, 19 Chris McQueen, 20 Josh Aloiai, 21 Tyson Gamble
THE IMPORTANT DETAILS
Date: Thursday 17 May
Venue: Panthers Stadium
WHO WILL WIN?
The Tigers still look destined for a top eight finish in 2018, but the return of Nathan Cleary is such a big factor in this match. At his best, he is one of the best halfbacks in the competition and I expect him to put in a big performance in his return.
Panthers by 10
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