Caretaker coach Cameron Ciraldo comes off the back of his first loss since filling the role vacated by the sacked Anthony Griffin, but can he turn things around for the Panthers on a tough road-trip across the ditch to tackle the hot-and-cold Warriors in Auckland?
The Warriors themselves suffered a shock loss to the bottom-feeding Bulldogs in their last start and appear to once again be limping toward the end of the season, but with finals footy on the horizon, Stephen Kearney will want to lift his troops and get back in the hunt for an elusive Premiership triumph.
As an added motivator, the Warriors still require one more win to be mathematically certain of playing in the finals series this year, so a big show on home soil could be on the cards. Penrith, on the other hand are safely locked inside the top eight, but will still fancy themselves of sneaking into the top four and making things a lot easier on themselves at the business end.
2018 - Panthers 36 def. Warriors 4 at Panthers Stadium
2017 - Panthers 34 def. Warriors 22 at Mt Smart Stadium
2017 - Panthers 36 def. Warriors 28 at Panthers Stadium
2016 - Warriors 20 def. Panthers 16 at Mt Smart Stadium
2016 - Panthers 30 def. Warriors 18 at Rugby League Park, Christchurch
Penrith have managed victory in their last three meetings with the Kiwi club including a 36-4 hammering with a team of youngsters led by the effervescent Jarome Luai early this season.
The Panthers have also managed to win nine of the last 11 games between these two clubs including a 62-6 belting of a woeful Warriors outfit back in 2013 when ex-Warriors utility Lewis Brown nabbed a memorable hat-trick at Panthers Stadium.
|New Zealand Warriors||Penrith Panthers|
|1||Roger Tuivasa-Sheck||Dallin Watene-Zelezniak|
|2||David Fusitu'a||Josh Mansour|
|3||Gerard Beale||Waqa Blake|
|4||Solomone Kata||Dean Whare|
|5||Ken Maumalo||Christian Crichton|
|6||Mason Lino||Tyrone Peachey|
|7||Shaun Johnson||Nathan Cleary|
|8||James Gavet||Trent Merrin|
|9||Isaac Luke||Wayde Egan|
|10||Agnatius Paasi||Reagan Campbell-Gillard|
|11||Isaiah Papali'i||Viliame Kikau|
|12||Adam Blair||Isaah Yeo|
|13||Simon Mannering||James Fisher-Harris|
|14||Jazz Tevaga||Tyrone May|
|15||Tohu Harris||Moses Leota|
|16||Bunty Afoa||Corey Harawira-Naera|
|17||Peta Hiku||James Tamou|
|18||Leivaha Pulu||Sione Katoa|
|19||Anthony Gelling||Kaide Ellis|
|20||Chris Satae||Adam Keighran|
|21||Karl Lawton||Liam Martin|
The facts that matter
New Zealand Warriors
In stark contrast to their standard approach, the 2018 Warriors side has the worst home record of any team in the top eight and have relied on their improved road form to keep them in contention for finals footy.
The Kiwi side did win their last home game, 20-4 over the Newcastle Knights, bringing their home record to five wins and five losses for the campaign but a sixth home win of the season this Friday night against the Panthers will help ease Stephen Kearney's outfit into sudden-death football.
Warriors fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has been a man possessed in 2018. The former Roosters custodian leads the league in kick return metres (1141) and has managed a handful of tries and seven try assists across an impressive campaign.
While Tuivasa-Sheck will likely be a key cog in the Warriors machine again this week, he'll rely on veteran players like Isaac Luke and Shaun Johnson to keep things ticking over in attack as well as try-scoring freak David Fusitu'a to keep up his potent threat on the flank.
Stephen Kearney has had to shuffle his deck of cards slightly with the loss of experienced five-eighth Blake Green to a calf injury. Having come over to Auckland from the Sea Eagles, Green has proven a good foil for halfback Shaun Johnson and will be deeply missed this weekend.
Green is replaced in the halves by Mason Lino who managed some strong performances while filling in alongside Green when Shaun Johnson was out earlier in the season. Tohu Harris has been named to make his return from injury, which pushes Leivaha Pulu back to the interchange bench.
Two games into his NRL coaching career, Cameron Ciraldo has wielded the selection axe in the wake of a disappointing loss in front of their home crowd last weekend against the Newcastle Knights, but it will take more than positional or personnel changes for the Panthers to turn things around.
Penrith were at their frustrating worst against the Knights, dishing up a disinterested and lethargic performance riddled with errors and simple mistakes which gifted their opposition a handy two points.
The media spotlight has been an intense distraction around Penrith since Executive General Manager Phil Gould pulled the trigger and sacked Anthony Griffin but things will ratchet up a notch or two should they slump to another loss and tumble toward the bottom of the top eight.
With no James Maloney once again this week, much of the creative and directional pressure will fall on the shoulders of young halfback Nathan Cleary. Cleary has been handed plenty of plaudits so far in his short career, but there are still some questions over his ability to create scoring opportunities and direct an NRL side around the park under pressure. This week offers the playmaker a big chance at silencing some doubters.
Moving Tyrone Peachey back into the halves from fullback should help.
With Peachey's shift back to five-eighth, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak is back at fullback where he excelled before injury while Tyrone May drops back to the interchange bench. Hooker Sione Katoa has been chopped completely from the side with Wayde Egan preferred in the starting side.
Christian Crichton earns a recall on the wing in place of DWZ while James Fisher-Harris returns at lock forward. Corey Harawira-Naera moves to the bench and Kaide Ellis back to the reserves.
Penrith were truly woeful in their last-start loss to the Knights in front of their old boys and club legends and you'd have to think Cameron Ciraldo will have his side well prepared to tackle the Kiwis and get his short-term job interview back on track.
The Warriors do need to notch another win to be certain of a finals berth and they'll be up for the clash as well given their lame loss on the road against Canterbury last weekend, so there's plenty of motivation in this one on both sides of the park.
With that in mind, Penrith should have enough about them to grab the win and maintain their great recent record against New Zealand. Penrith by 12 points.
Which finals-bound competitor will bounce back from a last-start loss in Friday night's first game, the Warriors or the Panthers? Let us know in the comments below.