There are few rivalries in the NRL more passionate and more fiercely contested than the one dubbed the Battle of the West.
When you grow up playing footy in Sydney's far west, you're taught from a young age to compete and to compete at the highest level. The sheer number of quality young players produced in the area demands nothing but the best but for those who do come through the talent production schools like Patrician Brothers at Blacktown or St Dominic's at Penrith and make it into the Penrith Panthers or Parramatta Eels lower grades, you're also taught to despise your nearest rivals.
The paupers for so long, these days the Panthers compete with anyone dollar for dollar when it comes to the junior nursery stakes but the old inferiority complex can still rise when the Eels come to town.
Long the club in the west that had every advantage, the Eels represent the grand old enemy for every Panther and the feeling is completely mutual.
This Sunday afternoon the pair meet for the 112th time. Since Penrith entered the league in 1967 they have beaten the Eels 45 times but lost to them on 63 occasions with three draws chipped in along the way.
The clashes are often tightly fought, gritty affairs and with the rust of pre-season and the enthusiasm of the first game of the year thrown in for good measure, this weekend's game could yet unfold as one of the more interesting in recent seasons.
The Panthers welcome star recruit James Maloney. The five-eighth shifted to the club from Cronulla in a swap deal that sent former captain Matt Moylan the other way. Plenty of interest rests in how quickly Maloney and halfback Nathan Cleary click while the visitors welcome back the prodigal son Jarryd Hayne, with plenty of doubts about how the former New South Wales Blues star will slot in upon his return to Parramatta.
2017 - Rd 8 - Parramatta Eels 18 def. Penrith Panthers 12 at ANZ Stadium
2016 - Rd 19 - Penrith Panthers 22 def. Parramatta Eels 18 at Panthers Stadium
2016 - Rd 5 - Penrith Panthers 20 def. Parramatta Eels 18 at Parramatta Stadium
2015 - Rd 22 - Parramatta Eels 10 def. Penrith Panthers 4 at Marrara Stadium (Darwin)
2015 - Rd 12 - Parramatta Eels 26 def, Penrith Panthers 20 at Panthers Stadium
The recent history between these two sides has been fairly even. Of the last five clashes, the Eels lead the way with three wins, including the last meeting of the pair in Round 8 last season in which they snared a narrow win on 'home soil' at ANZ Stadium.
The last time the pair met at Panthers Stadium, however, the Eels surrendered an 18-6 half-time advantage, losing 22-18 to an inspired second-half performance from the Panthers.
|Penrith Panthers||Parramatta Eels|
|1||Dylan Edwards||Bevan French|
|2||Josh Mansour||Josh Hoffman|
|3||Waqa Blake||Michael Jennings|
|4||Tyrone Peachey||Jarryd Hayne|
|5||Dallin Watene-Zelezniak||Kirisome Auva'a|
|6||James Maloney||Corey Norman|
|7||Nathan Cleary||Mitchell Moses|
|8||James Tamou||Daniel Alvaro|
|9||Peter Wallace||Cameron King|
|10||Reagan Campbell-Gillard||Tim Mannah|
|11||Viliame Kikau||Manu Ma'u|
|12||Isaah Yeo||Tepai Moeroa|
|13||Trent Merrin||Nathan Brown|
|14||Corey Harawira-Naera||Beau Scott|
|15||Sam McKendry||Brad Takairangi|
|16||Moses Leota||Suaia Matagi|
|17||James Fisher-Harris||Kane Evans|
|18||Sione Katoa||Will Smith|
|19||Tim Browne||Kenny Edwards|
|20||Christian Crichton||David Gower|
|21||Jarome Luai||Kaysa Pritchard|
The facts that matter
Penrith will be buoyed by the early return of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak on the wing despite previous reports he would miss the first couple of weeks through injury while boom youngster Viliame Kikau has been preferred as a starter in the backrow over the previously solid Corey Harawira-Naera in a relatively settled lineup from coach Anthony Griffin.
Gold Coast-bound Tyrone Peachey starts in the centres alongside Waqa Blake while the James Maloney/Nathan Cleary halves partnership will trot out for the first time officially. Plenty of eyes will be glued on the pair as they bid to gel quickly and control the attacking prowess of a side capable of notching big points quickly on their day.
Long-time Penrith star Sam McKendry is named on the bench and pre-season reports have been positive for the former Kiwi international who has suffered a torrid time through injury over the last few seasons. If 'Slammin Sam' can get back to anywhere near his best he could provide a huge boost from the bench as part of a prop forward rotation that boasts big name starters James Tamou and new Kangaroos sensation Reagan Campbell-Gillard.
While Tamou was solid in his debut season with the Panthers in 2017, it was RCG who made huge strides forward and looks capable of becoming one of the game's best props over the next couple of years. Starting 2018 in fine form is imperative.
If plenty of eyes will be on Penrith's star recruit James Maloney, just as many will be stuck on Jarryd Hayne as he takes the first steps in his return to the club where he was once seen as almost God-like.
Hayne came in for plenty of criticism during his time on the Gold Coast and for plenty more over his involvement in the sacking of head coach Neil Henry and his subsequent departure from the club. His move back to the Eels was also heavily questioned amongst experts, pundits and fans alike and it will be interesting to see how he fits into a squad which benefited greatly from a good atmosphere in 2017.
There is no Clint Gutherson for the blue and golds just yet so Brad Arthur has opted for Bevan French at the back with Hayne alongside fellow former New South Wales representative Michael Jennings in the centres.
It will no doubt be an interesting afternoon for Jennings as he returns to the ground he once lit up with relative frequency as a Penrith junior and long-term first grader at the club.
Conditions are expected to be on the warm side out at Panthers Stadium, so fitness concerns will come under plenty of scrutiny for both sides.
Previously touted for a backrow role, Brad Takairangi drops to the bench in favour of Tepai Moeroa while Kenny Edwards will start 2018 in reserve grade.
Picking form ahead of round one is always tricky, but especially so when you look at how evenly matched both the Panthers and Eels are on paper this season.
For mine, this one has all the potential in the world to be the best game of the opening weekend so Sunday afternoon footy will be compulsory viewing.
I'll stick with the home side in a close one, Penrith getting up by less than a converted try.