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While Thursday's Storm v Dragons fixture will be viewed as the match of an abbreviated round 17, the clash between the Panthers (4th) and Warriors (5th) is a huge game for both teams.

In one corner are Penrith, who have battled injuries all season and will be without Origin trio Tyrone Peachey, Nathan Cleary and James Maloney. The Panthers have done a great job to stay in the top four virtually all year but might be finally feeling the pinch after back to back losses to the Roosters and Manly.

They will be facing a near full-strength Warriors outfit on Friday night and go into the game as definite underdogs on paper. Anthony Griffin's NRL Coach of the Year prospects will soar if he can guide his team to victory in this one.

While the Warriors have obviously buried talk that they are top eight pretenders, they are coming off a narrow home loss to Cronulla and it'll be interesting to see if their confidence has been shaken.

Both teams have 10-5 records, though the Panthers boast a superior points differential.

Key match-up: The Panthers had a bye in the first split round for Origin I and Griffin was able to name Maloney and Cleary for the following week's round. He doesn't have that luxury this time and it should have Warriors duo Blake Green and Shaun Johnson salivating at the prospect of dominating a makeshift halves combination.

For the Panthers to win: The forwards have to take it upon themselves to lay a solid platform for an inexperienced halves duo to create scoring chances. Easier said than done, especially with Reagan Campbell-Gillard sidelined with a broken jaw. That means experienced leader Trent Merrin needs to have a blinder and show he's still one of the top forwards in the game.

For the Warriors to win: Curiously the Warriors have struggled at home and been terrific on the road this season. That bodes well for this Friday night battle in Panthers country, particularly with Penrith well below full strength. The big factor should be the Warriors' classy spine of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Green, Johnson and Issac Luke – it's hard to see the Panthers containing all four.

Panthers stat attack: The players Penrith have used in their back three this season have combined to make more ground than the back three at any other side in the competition when it comes to kick return metres. The top five teams in this category are all safely in the top eight.

Warriors stat attack: The Panthers need to be prepared for the Warriors' long kicking game on Friday night. The Auckland-based club have four 40/20 kicks so far this year, two clear of second best in the NRL. Blake Green has two of those, with Issac Luke and Shaun Johnson also finding success.

And another thing: Aside from a dramatic form slump or injuries to key players, the top eight won't change in the run home. The gap between the bottom eight and top eight only widened after round 16 losses by the Tigers and Raiders and it's hard to see either one forcing their way in. The Titans are playing good footy but have too much ground to make up, while the Knights and Sea Eagles appear to have only one or two wins left in them for the season. Thankfully the fight for spots within the top eight looks like going right down to the wire.

Penrith Panthers v New Zealand Warriors, Friday 7.55pm at Panthers Stadium

Penrith Panthers v New Zealand Warriors, Friday 7.55pm at Panthers Stadium

Panthers: 1 Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, 2 Christian Crichton, 3 Waqa Blake, 4 Dean Whare, 5 Tyrone Phillips, 6 Tyrone May, 7 Jarome Luai, 8 Trent Merrin, 9 Sione Katoa, 10 James Tamou, 11 Viliame Kikau, 12 Isaah Yeo (c), 13 James Fisher-Harris

Interchange: 14 Wayde Egan, 15 Corey Harawira-Naera, 16 Jack Hetherington, 17 Moses Leota

The Panthers will start 1-17 after Caleb Aekins and Kaide Ellis were left out an hour before kick-off. Tyrone May and Jarome Luai have been called up in the halves in place of Blues halves Nathan Cleary and James Maloney. Waqa Blake returns from injury at centre for Blues utility Tyrone Peachey. Corey Harawira-Naera returns on the bench for Kaide Ellis. Viliame Kikau has been named in the back row despite a bruised kneecap last week. Liam Martin and Corey Waddell were dropped off the bench 24 hours before kick-off.

Warriors: 1 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, 2 David Fusitu'a, 3 Peta Hiku, 4 Solomone Kata, 5 Ken Maumalo, 6 Blake Green, 7 Shaun Johnson, 8 James Gavet, 9 Issac Luke, 10 Agnatius Paasi, 11 Isaiah Papali'i, 12 Simon Mannering, 13 Adam Blair

Interchange: 14 Jazz Tevaga, 15 Tevita Satae, 16 Ligi Sao, 17 Gerard Beale

The Warriors will start 1-17 after Joseph Vuna and Karl Lawton were omitted an hour out from game time. David Fusitu'a (ankle) and Ken Maumalo (rested) return on the wings with Anthony Gelling out and Gerard Beale dropping to the bench. Adam Blair is back from suspension at lock with Simon Mannering moving to the second row in place of Tohu Harris (knee, four-six weeks). Ligi Sao replaces Bunty Afoa (knee, six weeks) on the bench. Sam Lisone and Mason Lino were omitted 24 hours before game time.


Head-to-head: Played 39; Panthers 22 wins, Warriors 16 wins, 1 draw
Previous result: Panthers won 34-22 at Mt Smart Stadium in round 19, 2017
Points per game: Panthers 21.1; Warriors 20.3
Points conceded per game: Panthers 16.0; Warriors 18.8
Televised: Live on Nine, Fox League

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The New Zealand Warriors honour the mana of the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa, Australia and the Pacific. We acknowledge the traditional kaitiaki of the lands, elders past and present, their stories, their traditions, their mamae and their mana motuhake.

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