Penrith Panthers (6th) v Canterbury Bulldogs (7th) @ Allianz Stadium
The Bulldogs and Panthers collide in a Western Sydney Derby in the Elimination Final at Allianz Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The Panthers are coming into the finals full of confidence and momentum having won 7 of their past 8 matches in surging into 6th spot. The Bulldogs are at the other end of the form scale having dropped their past 3 matches which saw them plummet to 7th spot on the ladder. When the sides met way back in Round 2, the Bulldogs snatched a last minute 18-16 victory at Pepper Stadium after a Kerrod Holland sideline conversion.
The Panthers are expected to go in unchanged despite Anthony Griffin naming Moses Leota on an extended bench. Clearly the strength of this Penrith side is their free wheeling attack which is averaging 30 points per game in their last 8 matches. While this form has been undeniably impressive, they have taken apart a few beaten up teams including Newcastle, Parramatta, Manly and Wests Tigers. I thought Matt Moylan had been quiet this year up until the last 6 weeks where he has really rediscovered his magic form of 2014. To go with young and exuberant halves pairing Bryce Cartwright and Nathan Cleary, Penrith have plenty of strike power in their spine. The question mark I have over Penrith is can they lift their defensive intensity against more grizzly opponents and win a war of attrition. They get the perfect opportunity to put that question mark over them to bed with a win over the Bulldogs on Sunday.
The Bulldogs lose their fullback Will Hopoate for religious reasons as Coach Des Hasler is forced into a backline reshuffle. With Sam Perrett still unavailable with a neck injury, Brett Morris moves to fullback and Tyrone Phillips jumps on to the wing. A huge inclusion for the Bulldogs is Sam Kasiano who returns from a 2-week suspension to add much added impact off the bench. The Bulldogs have thrived on this weekend the past two years winning their Elimination Finals and lifting for the occasion. Their spine has been rather awful of late and need to massively lift their game collectively and individually on Sunday. Josh Reynolds and Moses Mbye really need to take command of this team and find more precision in attack and execute better last play options. Michael Lichaa needs to provide far crisper service out in front of his halves rather then the lumbering, slow passes he has served up the past few weeks.
Verdict - Bulldogs 20 Penrith 18
I don't love this pick but I am going to tip the Bulldogs in an upset. I have tipped them the past few weeks hoping they would come good, so I may as well go down with this ship. I just think their experienced and hard-nosed forwards like James Graham, Josh Jackson and David Klemmer might be able to ambush Penrith and put them out of their rhythm. There is no doubt Penrith have more points in them than the Dogs, however I have some question marks over the level of opponents they have played recently, their defence and their inexperience. Sometimes all those factors can be more amplified come finals time. Clearly the Dogs need to get the first try or two here and from there they can dictate the tempo of the game. If Penrith get ahead early it could be a rout the other way. Bulldogs by 2.