Canberra Raiders v Penrith Panthers

Sunday July 26, 2:00pm, Pepper Stadium

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets!

Coverage: Foxsports 1

Referees: Ben Cummins and Lawrence McDonnell

Video Referees: Jared Maxwell and Ben Galea

Blake Austin knows that this will not be a friendly homecoming by any means. No, the wunderkind from Doonside will not be expecting any favours or high fives from his former teammates when he runs out onto Pepper Stadium this Sunday afternoon.

In fact, it is highly likely that Austin, arguably the form player in the competition, will have a target on his head when he returns to the ground that he developed from a junior representative star to an NRL player at.

“Having grown up in the area, I will have a lot of family and friends in the stands but I’ve got no doubt that the majority of people in the crowd won’t be too friendly when I run out,” Austin chuckled.

“I don’t mind though, I welcome the challenge. I'm proud to be a Canberra Raider now and this is a must-win game for us. We were all very disappointed to have lost last week against the Sharks and we need to bounce back immediately because we don’t want to fall too far behind the pack.

“The Panthers are in the same boat as us so it should be a really good game!”

“It’s going to be a tough game for us,” added Penrith hooker James Segeyaro. “They’ve got a very good forward pack and obviously there will be the return of Blake Austin to Penrith. He’s a local boy and he will be looking to have a big one. Hopefully we can spoil the party for him and the Raiders and send them back to Canberra with a loss.”

Keep dreaming James...

The Green Machine will be fired up for this clash to climb closer towards the top eight as the loss to Cronulla saw Canberra slip to 10th place on the ladder, four competition points outside of the top eight.

Penrith too are coming off a loss, a 52-10 thumping at the hands of the Melbourne Storm. Back-to-back losses for the Panthers also sees them locked on 18 competition points with the Raiders, however their inferior for-and-against sees them slotting in at 12th on the ladder.

Both sides have finals ambitions and neither can ill-afford to drop any more games if they are to fulfil such ambitions.

An issue in the loss to the Sharks was a fall in the quality of organisation and direction at times in the halves following the injury to halfback Sam Williams. There is no doubt Jack Wighton is an enviably gifted player, however his game management skills are still developing.

Due to this, and the knee injury to Sisa Waqa, Wighton returns to his regular role at fullback and the experienced Josh McCrone returns to the NRL for the first time since Round 3 in the number seven jersey .

"Players pick and drop themselves and with Josh giving a man-of-the-match performance for Mounties on the weekend, it was very easy to pick him," Coach Ricky Stuart said. "It was his best game of the season."

CLICK HERE to see the NRL Team List.

Penrith too have some team changes with winger David Simmons returning from injury. The Panthers defeated the Raiders in both games last year and Simmons has proven to excel against the Green Machine of late having scored four tries in the last three games between the two sides.

KEY MATCHUPS

Jack Wighton v Willi Smith

After a fairly quiet game at halfback last weekend, expect Wighton to deliver a top notch performance in his preferred position of fullback now that he is devoid of the added organisational burden that comes with life in the number seven jersey.

Blessed with speed, footwork, natural instinct and packaged in a large, athletic body, Wighton is an entertaining sight for fans and an intimidating one for the opposition when in full flight.

Wighton has racked up 659 kick return metres in 2015 which is the eighth highest in the NRL and will revel in the dry conditions at Pepper Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

With first choice custodian Matt Moylan and second choice Dallin Watene-Zelezniak sidelined with injury, the talented yet inexperienced Will Smith will again line up in the number one jersey for the Panthers on Sunday.

There is no doubting the fact that Smith is a promising player, but the 23 year old can expect to be targeted heavily by the boots of Austin and McCrone due to his inexperience and the fact that he normally plays at five-eighth.

Josh McCrone v Peter Wallace

With over 100 NRL games and two Country representative caps to his name, McCrone brings a wealth of experience and guidance to a side which lacked direction at crucial times last week.

After three fairly quiet games from the interchange bench to start the year, McCrone was dropped back to the VB NSW Cup following back-to-back losses. In a testament to his character though, McCrone took the disappointment in his stride and has proven to be one of Mounties best players all year.

Playing at five-eighth, McCrone has been pivotal in guiding Mounties to second place on the VB NSW Cup ladder and was Man of the Match in last week’s 30-24 victory over the Newtown Jets.

Like the Raiders last week, the Panthers have sorely missed the on-field guidance of halfback Peter Wallace for the majority of the season. Penrith are blessed with terrific, youthful talent in their forwards and outside backs, but it is Wallace and Soward’s direction and organisation that holds the key for the Panthers.

Josh Hodgson v James Segeyaro

In the absence of Williams, Hodgson was outstanding last week against the Sharks and was undoubtedly the Raiders’ best player.

In just under 60 minutes of game time, the likeable Englishman registered 36 tackles, one try assist, one line break, six tackle busts and 109 valuable kick metres.

As Williams is normally the side’s chief kicker, Hodgson’s kicking game will again be vitally important this weekend. Hodgson is one of the best exponents of the 40/20 in the competition with three for the year, the equal highest in the NRL.

Hodgson’s clash with Segeyaro shapes as a beauty.

Segeyaro provides the Panthers with plenty of X factor out of dummy half with his speed off the mark, attacking ingenuity and ball skills. He will need to be heavily marked by Canberra’s ruck defence.

STAT ATTACK

Record against the Panthers:

In a total of 66 games against Penrith, Canberra has won 32 games, drawn once and lost on 33 occasions.

Raiders record at Pepper Stadium:

In a total of 30 games played at Pepper Stadium, Canberra has won just 11 games, drawn once and lost on 18 occasions.

Last three encounters:

1.        Panthers defeated Raiders 26-20 at GIO Stadium in Round 10, 2014

2.        Panthers defeated Raiders 12-6 at Pepper Stadium in Round 5, 2014

3.        Raiders defeated Panthers 24-10 at GIO Stadium in Round 14, 2013


HE SAID IT

Josh Hodgson: “We gave away far too much possession last week against the Sharks through ill-discipline. We need to fix that this week against the Panthers because you can’t win games of football with that sort of ill-discipline.”

CLICK HERE to see the full interview with Hodgson.

Jarrad Kennedy: “The loss last week was hard to take but it’s only going to make us tougher. We’ve got to learn to win those tough games and the individual battles within them. We’ve learnt from it and will be better this week against the Panthers.”

CLICK HERE to see the full interview with Kennedy.

Jack Wighton: “I prefer playing fullback because that’s where I’ve played the majority of the year but I’m happy to play anywhere that Ricky thinks will best suit the team.”

CLICK HERE to see the full interview with Wighton.