This match-up features two teams whose fortunes have swung wildly in the past few weeks.
The Rabbitohs were the league front-runners thanks to a seven-game winning streak before back-to-back losses in the past fortnight. Meanwhile, Penrith slumped to five straight defeats before seemingly turning the corner with three wins on the trot heading into this contest.
Souths can point to the effect of the Origin period – with four state representatives in their side – but they are still well below full-strength here with halfback Adam Reynolds (back), forward leader Sam Burgess (shoulder surgery) and prop Tom Burgess (suspended) all sidelined.
Penrith on the other hand finally have their star halves clicking into gear; Nathan Cleary earning his NSW jersey back with a strong effort against Parramatta and Maloney leading the side to wins against Manly and the Roosters since then.
Having had their finals chances written off a month ago, the Panthers are now just one win outside the eight and are sensing another big scalp here.
Rabbitohs: Alex Johnston will take his place at fullback with Corey Allan returning to reserve grade. George Burgess (concussion) is out, with Tevita Tatola starting and Rhys Kennedy joining the bench. Cameron Murray sat out the side's final training session with a virus but is expected to play. Mawene Hiroti and Connor Tracey were cut from the reserves on Friday. The Rabbitohs have won three of their past four games against the Panthers.
Panthers: Penrith are 1-17, with Calbe Aekins and Kaide Ellis dropping off the extended bench on game day. Reagan Campbell-Gillard will have to prove his NSW credentials against the Bunnies coming off the bench for a consecutive week. Penrith have conceded only five tries in their past three games. Malakai Watene-Zelezniak and Jed Cartwright were omitted from the squad on Friday.
Cody Walker v James Maloney. The NSW five-eighth takes on the man he replaced, and there will be a huge amount of pressure on the Rabbitohs No.6 after he was benched by Brad Fittler midway through the second half in his Origin debut. Not helping things is the newfound form of Maloney, who was simply brilliant against the Roosters last week and is pushing for a recall for the Blues in a do-or-die clash in Perth. Walker has already enjoyed success against with a try and two try assists Penrith back in round seven. This match-up could decide not just who wins here but also one of the key selection decisions for Origin II.
For the Rabbitohs to win
Time to get their groove back in attack. Only Melbourne have scored more points than Souths this season, with the Rabbitohs leading the league in line breaks, run metres, supports and goals. But without the league's leading try-scorer Walker in the past fortnight they scored just 14 points against Parramatta and 12 against Newcastle. With Walker back and Damien Cook not backing up from Origin like he was last week, Souths should have the strike power they've sorely lacked of late.
For the Panthers to win
They need to build on their recent form – and hold the ball. Their current winning streak has come against an out-of-form Eels side and understrength Manly and Roosters outfits, so this game shapes as another step up in class (even with Souths missing some big names). Even in those wins the Panthers never completed at even 75% (their 70% completion rate in 2019 is the worst in the league) and they can't afford to give possession to a Rabbitohs side featuring threats like Walker, Damien Cook and James Roberts.
Brett Kimmorley says...
Penrith are on the improve. Cleary and Maloney were a great combination last week, and Maloney is back in Origin contention. Souths were a bit off against Newcastle last week but Cody Walker is back and we can look forward to a big game from him. Sam Burgess is a big loss but I think they can still beat the Panthers. Rabbitohs by 4.
For better and worse, this Panthers team seems to rise and fall with the form of James Maloney. The veteran five-eighth leads the competition in two statistics – missed tackles and penalties conceded – and Penrith echo that as a team, making the most missed tackles and conceding the most penalties of the 16 NRL clubs. And yet he's also a huge threat with and without the ball. Last week Maloney was forcing turnovers with tackles that belied his 176cm frame while also kicking a 40/20 and laying on three tries. Maloney and the Panthers will never be perfect but they're capable of turning a game in an instant with a huge play, and throughout his career the pros have easily outweighed the cons.
And another thing…
After a brilliant start to his first season as Rabbitohs, Wayne Bennett is at risk of losing three straight games at club level for the first time since round 13, 2016 at Brisbane.