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3 hours ago | Tim Costello
Panthers look to kick-start season against in-form Rabbitohs
Experiencing a turbulent time on and off the field over the past week, the Penrith Panthers will be out to halt a lacklustre start to 2019 by upsetting one of the competition front-runners - the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Squandering a 14-point lead over the final quarter against Cronulla last Thursday to go down 24-20 at PointsBet Stadium, Panthers coach Ivan Cleary will be hoping the departure of general manager of football, Phil Gould, brings about a rebirth on the field following two wins over the first six rounds.
Sitting alongside Canterbury with the worst try-scoring rate in the league - averaging little more than two tries per game - Penrith will be banking on a strong record at home in night matches to help get them over the line, having won eight of their past nine fixtures when the sun goes down over Panthers Stadium.
Forced into a backline reshuffle with Dean Whare sidelined with a torn hamstring, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak will shift into the centres allowing reigning ISP Player of the Year, Caleb Aekins, the opportunity to play his first match of the season in the number one jersey.
Doing enough to dispose of the Bulldogs in a lethargic 14-6 win at ANZ Stadium last Friday, the South Sydney Rabbitohs will be aiming to extend a strong record over the Penrith Panthers after winning seven of the past ten clashes dating back to 2012.
Equalling their best start to a season since re-entering the competition to sit alongside Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra at the top of the premiership ladder, coach Wayne Bennett will be backing his side's attacking prowess to prove too strong on Friday night, having averaged just under 24 points per match this season to rank third in the league for points scored.
Experiencing a difficult run at Penrith with 11 losses from 16 appearances throughout the 2000s, including three of their past four visits, the Rabbitohs will benefit from consistency in their playing ranks with no changes from the side that defeated the Warriors and Bulldogs over the past fortnight.
Last meeting: Round 2 2018 - Panthers 18 Rabbitohs 14
Who to watch: Starting the season on the wing, moving to his preferred position of fullback, only for injury to force him into the centres as a stop-gap solution, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak will be looking to help the Panthers find consistency on Friday night. Coming off a career-defining season that saw him captain New Zealand against England in the Baskerville Shield, the 23-year-old outside back has remained consistent in his on-field performances since reuniting with the man who gave him his NRL debut at age 18, leading the way for running metres at Penrith with an average of over 130 metres per match. Playing in the centres for only the fifth time in his career, expect Watene-Zelezniak to revel alongside older brother, Malakai, as the Panthers strive to get their season back on track.
Playing exclusively off the bench in his rookie season last year, Tevita Tatola has thrived as a starting prop under Wayne Bennett. Relegating premiership winner George Burgess to the bench in a major show of confidence by his new coach, the 22-year-old Tongan international has taken his game to new heights in 2019 doubling his average running metres to over 100 per game, while chiming in with 23 tackles for good measure. Off-contract at the end of the season, look for Tatola to attract plenty of interest from rival clubs given the impressive form shown over the opening six rounds.
The favourite: Despite a stilted showing on Good Friday, the Rabbitohs are expected to account for the Panthers without exerting themselves.
My tip: With Penrith unable to produce points and lacking the defensive fortitude to withstand the attacking might of their opponents, South Sydney should come away from the foot of the mountains with a convincing win. Rabbitohs by 20.
1. Caleb Aekins 2. Josh Mansour 3. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 4. Waqa Blake 5. Malakai Watene-Zelezniak 6. James Maloney 7. Nathan Cleary 8. James Tamou 9. Wayde Egan 10. Tim Grant 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Isaah Yeo 13. James Fisher-Harris 14. Sione Katoa 15. Liam Martin 16. Moses Leota 17. Reagan Campbell-Gillard
1. Alex Johnston 2. Corey Allen 3. Kyle Turner 4. Dane Gagai 5. Campbell Graham 6. Cody Walker 7. Adam Reynolds 14. Tevita Tatola 9. Damien Cook 10. Thomas Burgess 11. John Sutton 12. Sam Burgess 13. Cameron Murray 8. George Burgess 15. Mark Nicholls 16. Ethan Lowe 17. Liam Knight
Referees: Ashley Klein, Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski; Sideline Officials: Belinda Sleeman, Rickey McFarlane; Video Referees: Jared Maxwell, Bryan Norrie;