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3 hours ago | Tim Costello
Former finalists face off under vastly different circumstances
When the Penrith Panthers last faced the New Zealand Warriors, the elimination final stakes saw both teams have to win to remain in contention for the premiership.
On Friday night the two sides will be treating the mid-May clash with similar reverence following disappointing starts to 2019 respectively.
Hitting rock bottom with a calamitous 30-4 defeat against the Wests Tigers in Magic Round, coach Ivan Cleary will be demanding greater defensive fortitude after seeing his side concede five tries in the opening 17 minutes in Brisbane.
Coming into the Round 10 clash ahead of the last-placed Bulldogs by virtue of a slightly superior for-and-against differential, the circumstances faced by the Panthers eerily resemble the tumultuous start to Cleary's first stint at the helm, where the side generated two wins from their opening nine matches before going on to finish in 15th position with the most players used by any club in 2012.
Hoping to arrest recent troubles by continuing a strong record over the Warriors that has yielded ten wins from their past 14 meetings, a loss on Friday night would see the Panthers slump to their worst losing streak in 17 years with a sixth consecutive defeat.
Responding to last week's debacle by making mass changes, former internationals Josh Mansour and Reagan Campbell-Gillard have been sensationally dumped alongside Caleb Aekins and Wayde Egan. As a result of reshuffle, Dylan Edwards has been recalled at fullback, Waqa Blake returns after being dropped for disciplinary reasons, Liam Martin starts for the first time in his career at lock, while Brian Too will make his NRL debut after being elevated from the club's development squad.
Demonstrating a level of resilience rarely sighted to get the better of St George Illawarra in a strong second half performance last Saturday, the New Zealand Warriors will be chasing back-to-back wins for the first time since the closing regular season fixtures last year.
Scoring 20 unanswered points to defeat the Dragons, 26-18, in Brisbane, coach Stephen Kearney will be out to reverse a poor record at the foot of the mountains that has seen his side has go down in their past five visits, including an embarrassing 36-4 defeat at the hands of the most inexperienced team fielded in the NRL last season.
Remaining in 12th on the ladder despite last week's win, the Warriors will be looking to replicate their impressive ball control on Friday night after completing at 91 per cent against the Dragons - equalling their best percentage recorded this season alongside the win over the Titans at the start of April.
Receiving strong service from all 17 players last week, Kearney has stuck solid with the same squad, while alluding to potential late changes with Issac Luke and Adam Blair listed as part of an extended bench.
Last meeting: Finals Week 1 2018 - Panthers 27 Warriors 12 (Elimination Final)
Who to watch: Becoming the second Penrith player to debut in first grade this season, 20-year-old winger Brian Too will be out to make a name for himself on Friday night. Elevated into the club's top squad after starting the year as one of six development players, the St Mary's junior has been a familiar face at the foot of the mountains having come through the lower grades to win SG Ball and National Under-18s titles in 2016, while being the first member of the Panthers beaten Jersey Flegg grand final side to make the step up to the NRL. Earning additional representative honours, including a try-scoring appearance for the New South Wales Residents last Sunday, Too can expect a tough initiation opposing Ken Maumalo, as he fights to keep Josh Mansour out of first grade with his on-field efforts.
Making a largely anonymous return to the NRL after a failed stint with Leigh in England, Lachlan Burr has been unassuming in filling a role that has proven pivotal to the Warriors past successes. With the likes of Kevin Campion and Michael Luck venturing across the ditch as hard-headed forwards capable of complementing the side's natural flair with resolute defence, the 26-year-old has made every post a winner this season, averaging just under 100 metres each week along with 30 tackles for good measure. Facing off against a Penrith outfit capable of scoring points, Burr's role in ensuring the Warriors defence holds strong will go a long way towards helping the side record their first win at Panthers Stadium since 2012.
The favourite: Coming in as surprising favourites given last week's sub-standard showing, the Panthers are expected to bounce back at home.
My tip: Despite a much-improved showing from the Panthers, the class of the Warriors should be enough to record back-to-back wins away from New Zealand for the first time in 14 months. Warriors by 4.
1. Dylan Edwards 2. Brian To'o 3. Dean Whare 4. Waqa Blake 5. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 6. James Maloney 7. Nathan Cleary 8. James Tamou 9. Sione Katoa 10. Tim Grant 11. Viliame Kikau 12. James Fisher-Harris 13. Liam Martin 14. Jarome Luai 15. Tyrell Fuimaono 16. Moses Leota 17. Kaide Ellis
1. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck 2. David Fusitua 3. Peta Hiku 4. Patrick Herbert 5. Ken Maumalo 6. Kodi Nikorima 7. Blake Green 8. Agnatius Paasi 22. Issac Luke 10. Leeson Ah Mau 11. Isaiah Papalii 12. Tohu Harris 13. Lachlan Burr 14. Jazz Tevaga 15. Bunty Afoa 16. Ligi Sao 17. Karl Lawton
Referees: Henry Perenara, Jon Stone; Sideline Officials: Kasey Badger, Adam Cassidy; Video Referees: Jared Maxwell, Ben Lowe;