Lockdown and injuries overshadow build-up to western Sydney blockbuster

Liam Martin returns after Origin. Photo: NRL Photos.
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One of the season’s biggest blockbusters takes place at BlueBet Stadium on Friday night with the Penrith Panthers taking on the Parramatta Eels in a top four showdown.

These games are always hyped as the ‘battle of the west’ but it’s never been more accurate given these sides sit second and third on the ladder – rarely do these rivalry clashes come when both sides are in such terrific form.

However, plenty has overshadowed what should have been one of best build-ups of the season.

The COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney means Friday’s game will be played behind closed doors, while a shoulder injury has robbed the match of the game’s best player.

Regardless, games between these two clubs always have plenty of meaning and this should still be a great match.

The Panthers got their premiership train back on track against the Roosters a fortnight ago, bouncing back from two straight losses to easily account for the tri-colours, easing some tensions that started to mount after the side’s winning streak was finally broken.

Matt Burton shifts to five-eighth this week. Photo: Megan Dunn.

The Eels meantime did enough to beat the Bulldogs, but were challenged in the same way Trent Barrett’s side took it to Penrith back in Round 12.

There’s no question this is a big test for the Eels. All the experts, and general followers, already believe in Penrith’s premiership aspirations.

They’re not so sure about Parramatta, but a victory over Ivan Cleary’s side would certainly change that view.

There’s no doubt, however, that the Eels get to play Penrith at the best possible time, with not only Cleary but also Dylan Edwards sitting on the sidelines.

It’s sparked a significant re-shuffle with Charlie Staines moving to fullback, Brent Naden finding himself back in first grade on the wing and Tyrone May coming into the centres, replacing Matt Burton who moves into the halves.

It’s not an ideal preparation for Penrith, but I don’t expect them to be as clunky in attack as they were against the Tigers and Sharks, especially given Jarome Luai will now be running the show.

One player I’m anticipating will have a big game is Viliame Kikau, who most accept hasn’t been in the rampaging form we’ve come to expect from the big Fijian. He’s well rested, and has reportedly been told to lift his game – a sure-fire recipe for a stand-out performance.

Viliame Kikau needs to find some form. Photo: NRL Photos.

The Eels have plenty to offer – there’s no doubt about that – but I do question their ability to close out games and hold on in gritty affairs. The vast majority of their wins this season have been by big margins – Parramatta won’t have such a luxury against Penrith, who rarely let matches get away from them.

The real question is if Parramatta can handle Penrith’s running game and momentum. The Panthers lead the competition in All Runs, All Run Metres, and Kick Return Metres this season – when they’re on a roll, they’re hard to stop. But guess which team sits second in all of those stats? Parramatta. And Brad Arthur’s side leads the comp in post contact metres, with Penrith second.

Penrith and Parramatta also control possession better than anyone in the competition – Penrith averaging 55 per cent of the ball in games, the Eels in second on 54 per cent.

It all points to a thriller.

Tip: Panthers by 6.

Penrith and Parramatta play at BlueBet Stadium on Friday, July 2 at 7.55pm. No crowd will be permitted.

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