Penrith Panthers v Wests Tigers
No match this weekend is more vital in terms of the final make-up of the top eight than this western Sydney derby.
The Wests Tigers' finals hopes were dealt a huge double-whammy last week in the form of a loss to the Titans – that saw Gold Coast leap frog them on the ladder – as well as a four-to-six week injury to star fullback James Tedesco.
For Jason Taylor's men now, the message is simple – win, and keep winning, or say goodbye to your 2016 finals hopes. While the 10th-placed Tigers could technically sneak in with two wins from their final three games, their poor differential means three straight victories are needed to guarantee a top eight berth.
With no Tedesco, the versatile Jordan Rankin moves to fullback and Josh Addo-Carr is recalled on the wing. How this effects the dummy-half rotation (Rankin has been used to spell Dene Halatau in attacking sets of late) remains to be seen.
Halfback Luke Brooks also returns from a knee injury in place of Jack Littlejohn.
The Panthers are in a slightly better spot on 26 competition points – a win clear of the Tigers – and two wins from three games will guarantee them September football (while one win and two losses might be enough to scrape in pending other results). However with a tough trip to the Gold Coast next week followed by a home game against Manly, they won't want to let this one slip.
Coach Anthony Griffin has unsurprisingly named an unchanged 17 after last week's trouncing of the Knights.
Watch out Panthers: The young Tigers halves have 14 try assists each in 2016 – their 28 combined beats every other halves duo this year other than the Broncos and Cowboys pairs. Their 31 line-break assists (Brooks 19, second best, and Moses 12) is the best of any halves pairing in the NRL. Moses has been in tremendous form of late while Brooks has been out and while some may point to a couple of costly (but tricky) goal and field goal misses in last week's one-point loss his improved maturity this year is a massive plus for the Tigers. With no Tedesco, the spark will need to come from these two young playmakers.
Watch out Wests Tigers: Panthers back-rower-turned-centre Tyrone Peachey has been almost the form player of the competition over the past fortnight, racking up three tries, a try assist and a whopping 16 tackle busts in his past two starts. He's formed a formidable combination on Penrith's left edge with in-form flanker Josh Mansour who joined in the fun against Newcastle last week with a double of his own.
Key match-up: Josh Mansour v David Nofoaluma. Not only does this match feature arguably the two form wingers of the competition (leaving aside tackle-busting Raiders sensation Jordan Rapana) but in a rare blessing they will face off on the same side of the field. So often the best wingers find their way to the left but Nofoaluma has plied his trade on the right dating right back to the spectacular upside-try against Manly in 2013 that forged his reputation. Nofoluma has the most tackle breaks of any player this year with 116 but Mansour isn't far behind, in fourth with 107. They've had no trouble getting over the stripe either with 14 and 13 tries respectively.
The history: Played 28; Panthers 16, Wests Tigers 12. The Tigers haven't travelled to Penrith much of late but have been successful on their past three visits (in 2011, 12 and 13).
Match officials: Referee: Jared Maxwell. Assistant referee: Gavin Reynolds. Sideline officials: Michael Wise and Rohan Best. Review officials: Luke Patten & Matt Cecchin. Senior review official: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine - Live coverage from 7.30pm; Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7.30pm.
This article first appeared on NRL.com.