Countdown on to first game

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On paper, the Penrith Panthers are deserved favourites for Saturday afternoon’s clash with Newcastle at the newly named Sportingbet Stadium.

But games are rarely won on paper and in fact, when you look beyond the team lists, history is not on Penrith’s side heading into this opening round blockbuster.

The Panthers lost both games to Newcastle last season and of the 38 times they’ve played in history, Penrith has walked away with the chocolates on just 13 occasions.

That said, it is fair to say that the Penrith team that runs onto a new-look, freshened up Sportingbet Stadium on Saturday will be one of the strongest, most confident line-ups in almost a decade. Even with injuries to key men like Sika Manu and James Roberts, the Panthers look strong across the park.

All eyes will of course be on the new halves combination of Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace, who incredibly didn’t get to play alongside each other once during the pre-season due to various circumstances beyond coach Ivan Cleary’s control.

It is certainly not ideal that Soward and Wallace will first partner up when two competition points are on the line, but the pair would have worked on their combination throughout the off-season and the fact that they play on opposite sides of the ruck means it’s not too much of a disadvantage.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work in training, hopefully that will be enough to roll into this week,” Wallace said.

“It was unfortunate Sowie hurt his ankle a week before the last trial but the work we’ve been doing at training has been pretty good.”

For the Knights, they’ll just be happy to get onto the field after the pre-season from hell, lowlighted by off-field issues involving Russell Packer and Willie Mason.

Injuries have also caused problems for Newcastle’s preparation with star five-eighth Jarrod Mullen to miss the first couple of months of the season and former Panther Clint Newton also suffering a long-term injury.

Newton and Michael Dobson have been the only noteworthy additions to Newcastle’s squad this season, and with Danny Buderus, Neville Costigan, Kevin Naiqama, Anthony Quinn, Craig Gower and Will Smith all moving on at the end of last season, the club’s depth will well and truly be tested.

That said, Newcastle faced similar issues last season but managed to get all the way to the Grand Final qualifier against eventual premiers Sydney, and hence the ability and record of coach Wayne Bennett will certainly play a role this year.

If the Knights’ best players like Darius Boyd, try-scoring machine James McManus, Dane Gaigai and Kurt Gidley shine, then the side can beat anybody on their day.

A Saturday afternoon trip to Sportingbet Stadium against a side that has had so much positive press about them in the off-season is hardly ideal for Newcastle, hence why they are very much outsiders with betting agencies for this weekend’s game.

If coach Ivan Cleary needs to ground his team heading into this weekend, he need only go back to 2011, when the Panthers played the Knights in the opening game of the season after a positive 2010 season in which they finished second. The Panthers were completely outclassed 42-8 that day.

If Penrith are totally switched on and are well prepared, they should have too much class for the Knights – but in round one, anything is possible and nothing can be taken for granted.

Team wise, the only real surprise by Ivan Cleary on Tuesday came with the naming of Brent Kite in the starting side, with Sam McKendry back to the bench.

Jamal Idris was named in the centres but is still fighting a hamstring strain that may force a delay to his debut with Penrith.

Cleary still has to clear one player from a five man bench, with Jeremy Latimore named as 18th man.

Tip: Panthers by 10

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