The past 12 months have only really involved drama for Penrith Panthers and with the Panthers sitting in 15th spot, this is an enticing opportunity to see what Aotearoa Warriors are upto after a fairly meh start to the season. The Warriors are coming off a decent win over St George Illawara Dragons, which only resulted in the Warriors being 2 points ahead of the Panthers on the NRL ladder.
It does however feel like there is a spark of momentum that could become something in tonight's game against the Panthers. No sane Warriors fan would go full hundies on that idea as we all know that the Warriors have a habit of losing such games, hence we may learn a bit about the Warriors in this game.
The Panthers are the worst tackling team in the NRL (1st in missed tackles), they are 3rd in handling errors and 3rd in penalties conceded. This ultimately leaves the Panthers with the worst completion rate in the NRL and that's no helped by being last (16th) in run metres for the entire NRL. These are all stats of a rather crappy team, a team that is clearly struggling for confidence and when a team with talent is in such a mode, you never know which game may be the game to flip the switch.
Such volatility is exactly what we are dealing with for the Warriors, as a good Panthers game could very easily coincide with the Warriors slipping up. If the Warriors are legit about the top-8 hopes, then this is the game in which they establish their rugged, aggressive defensive style and then pounce all over Panthers mistakes. The same blueprint from the Dragons win applies here, perhaps even more so given how fragile the Panthers are at the moment.
Nathaniel Roache has been ruled out and that will likely see Issac Luke come into the 17 for game time. I'm not sure of the details, however for Roache to now miss a game with what looked to be a back injury after missing pretty much a year via a major back injury isn't good. The club will undoubtedly take care of Roache, with little need to rush Roache back into the team given the circumstances.
Who knows what coach Stephen Kearney will roll out for the game. The logical move is to start Luke and bring on Karl Lawton for impact in the second half, which could set up an interesting kicking situation after Kodi Nikorima's Warriors debut last week. Roache has 1 kick all season (5 games) and that's the same as Lawton, although Lawton has played just 2 games, while Kodi Nikorima had no kicks last week and Blake Green was the go to kicker.
Nikorima definitely kicks though, averaging 4 kicks and Luke averages 2 kicks per game. For the Warriors to be a factor in the NRL, they need that triple-threat kicking game and if Luke does start and play decent minutes, we will likely see that on display in Penrith. Even without much involvement from Luke, we are yet to see Nikorima kick as a Warrior so the balance of Green/Nikorima's kicking will be interesting viewing.
How the Warriors defend will also be notable after a strong second half last week which set up their win. Panthers are 13th in dummy half runs and are last in one-pass-hit-ups, which in theory should allow the Warriors to focus more on putting the Panthers under pressure out on the edges. Remember last week that the Warriors were torn to shreds by the Dragons speed and passing in the middle, then rectified that to plug the middle and slide out. I can't see the Panthers posing the same threat this week, which could set things up for an encouraging defensive display.
Viliame Kikau is the main weapon for Penrith and he sits on the left edge, likely to line up against Green and Isaiah Papali'i. Green is coming off a 7 missed tackles effort and anything over 4 is freaky, while the Green/Papali'i/Patrick Herbert edge missed a combined 12 tackles last week. Kikau will get plenty of footy, isolating Green and how the Warriors deal with this scheme will be a notable piece of this game's puzzle.
Here's a quick comparison of the Warriors middle forwards, who have the opportunity to dominate the Panthers middles if they show up with that intent...
Leeson Ah Mau: 46.6mins, 11.1 runs/94m, 8.53m/run, 0.8 tackle busts, 1 offload, 0.1 missed tackles.
Lachlan Burr: 51.8mins, 11.1 runs/89m, 8.03m/run, 0.9 tb, 1.2 off, 2.4 mt.
Agnatius Paasi: 40.6mins, 10.2 runs/8.7m, 8.53m/run, 0.8 tb, 1.2 off, 1 mt.
Bunty Afoa: 41mins, 9.9 runs/100m, 10.13m/run, 1.3 tb, 0.3 off, 0.6 mt.
Jazz Tevaga: 44.5mins, 6.3 runs/50m, 8.04m/run, 1.1 tb, 1.4 off, 1.3 mt.
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