Schick Hydro Preview: Penrith Panthers v Sydney Roosters
Is it too early to say this Round 3 battle of east v west could be an early season preview of a Telstra Premiership finals match later on in September?
A mouth-watering clash awaits with a number of key battles on show, headlined in the forwards with Kiwi international Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and State of Origin duo James Tamou and Trent Merrin coming head-to-head, while Panthers youngsters Nathan Cleary and Te Maire Martin line-up against premiership-winning pair Luke Keary and Mitchell Pearce in the halves.
The Roosters are flying high early following their undefeated start to the season, while the Panthers turned a disruptive week around to maul the Wests Tigers in their own backyard at Campbelltown.
What has been most impressive for the Bondi outfit is how well their new recruits – Keary and Michael Gordon – have combined in a short space of time alongside the spine of skipper Jake Friend and man-on-a-mission, Pearce.
The early season form of Pearce does not surprise Panthers front-rower James Tamou, who labeled his former Origin teammate's current on-field frame of mind as "scary" earlier in the week.
The Panthers received good news on Monday with Bryce Cartwright cleared of an ankle injury, and was named to take his place in the starting back-row.
After a stellar performance on the wing, Dylan Edwards retains his spot with injured duo Peta Hiku and Dallin-Watene-Zelezniak named in the reserves.
Meanwhile, the Roosters will be without Australian representative Blake Ferguson due to rib cartilage damage, with Joseph Manu replacing him in the No.4 jersey in what will be just his fourth appearance in the Telstra Premiership.
The 20-year-old will be up against it in his first game of 2017 with the form of Panthers centre Tyrone Peachey against the Tigers sending worrying signs to the Tri-colours, who have conceded five tries on their right edge in the opening two rounds.
Why the Panthers can win: Their defence looks to be back on track, and with that will come points.
The left edge of Peachey and Edwards tore the Tigers to shreds on the weekend, combining for nearly 400 metres and five line breaks between them with Matt Moylan providing plenty of ball out wide for the duo to help take the workload away from their big men early on in sets.
Being back on home turf will only spur the side on, having won five of their last six at the foot of the mountains.
Why the Roosters can win: They're not afraid of Pepper Stadium.
The Tri-colours have won 27 of 45 clashes at the venue including six of their last 11 by an average of 17 points or more and four of their last five on a Saturday afternoon in Penrith.
Their combinations have clicked into gear immediately with the Keary-Pearce partnership bringing back familiar memories of when Sharks five-eighth James Maloney was at the club with their ability to steer the team around the field and run the ball in attack.
KEY MATCH-UP: JARED WAEREA-HARGREAVES V JAMES TAMOU
101 | MINUTES PLAYED | 90
246 | RUNNING METRES | 222
63 | TACKLES | 57
0 | TACKLE BREAKS | 4
The history: Played 87; Panthers 33; Roosters 53; Drawn 1.
Anthony Griffin's men won both encounters last season, but the Roosters have the wood over the Panthers overall despite the last five years being even at 5-5.
In the last three clashes at the venue, the team who wins at Pepper Stadium has so by 20 points or more since 2013.
Match officials: Referee: Grant Atkins; Assistant Referee: Chris Butler; Touch judges: Jeff Younis and Dave Ryan; Review Officials: Bryan Norrie and Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox League – Live from 7:00pm.
NRL.com predicts: Flip a coin and stick with it, because this one will go down to the wire.
Ultimately, the Roosters will not be fazed turning up to Penrith for the showdown but couldn't put the Titans or Bulldogs away in the second half of their games, while the defensive effort of the Panthers last week shouldn't go unnoticed.
That being said, the wet weather predicted will do the home side no favours in playing their off-the-cusp brand of football, so we are leaning towards the visitors, but only by a small margin.
Roosters by four.
This article first appeared on NRL.COM