The Penrith Panthers will have to rebound from a shock loss in the second NRL semi-final when they take on the resurgent Parramatta Eels in Mackay.

A spot just 80 minutes from the grand final awaits, but for the Panthers, it's going to take an almighty turnaround and regrouping from last week.

Having already towelled up the South Sydney Rabbitohs twice this season, a straight advancement to the preliminary finals and likely grand final date against the Melbourne Storm for the second year running seemed almost like destiny.

Instead, the Rabbitohs rolled up and put the Panthers back a step, and then another as the ground out a victory which hands them a week.

So the Panthers went from favourites to outsiders, and while they will still come into their semi-final with the Eels as favourites, it's not going to be straightforward.

Parramatta have been incredibly inconsistent over the second half of the season - maybe not surprising when you consider how tough their run home was, combined with the fact Mitchell Moses spent a chunk of time on the sidelines injured.

NRL Rd 10 - Warriors v Eels

Their bounce-back win in Round 24 over the Melbourne Storm paved the way to turn things around though, before they scratched their way past the Newcastle Knights in an uninspiring elimination final win last weekend.

They will need to play at a far higher level against the Panthers if they hope to keep their season alive, but there is little doubt Brad Arthur's side has the talent to do it.

Team news

The Panthers have been rocked 24 hours out from kick-off with Brian To'o ruled out. His influence over the Panthers this year has bordered on astronomical, leading the competition in run metres and post-contract yardage, while also scoring a truckload of tries.

He has been the best winger in the competition, and while Brent Naden is solid, he isn't To'o.

BRIAN TO'O
Wing
Panthers
2021 SEASON AVG
0.7
Tries
242
All Run Metres
3.6
Tackles Made

In better news, Dylan Edwards makes his return from injury, as does Moses Leota and Scott Sorensen.

The Eels have only made one change, but it's a big one given the reason provided last week. Ryan Matterson is back for Makahesi Makatoa, but given Brad Arthur talked about "a lack of match fitness" for Matterson last week, his recall could be considered a shock.

But then, he brings plenty to the men in blue and gold and you'd suspect will play a big role off the bench if the Eels are to get up.

Penrith Panthers
1. Dylan Edwards 2. Stephen Crichton 3. Paul Momirovski 4. Matt Burton 20. Brent Naden 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Moses Leota 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Kurt Capewell 13. Isaah Yeo
Interchange: 14. Mitch Kenny 15. Scott Sorensen 16. Tevita Pangai Junior 17. Liam Martin 18. Spencer Leniu 19. Izack Tago

Parramatta Eels
1. Clinton Gutherson 2. Haze Dunster 3. Viliami Penisini 4. Waqa Blake 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Ray Stone 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Marata Niukore 13. Nathan Brown
Interchange: 14. Will Smith 15. Isaiah Papali'i 16. Bryce Cartwright 17. Ryan Matterson 18. Makahesi Makatoa 20. Tom Opacic

NRL Rd 5 - Eels v Panthers

The key battles

The kicking games
We have two absolute masters on their day here in Cleary and Moses.

Given the Panthers love to dominate the possession and territory battle, the kicking games could well decide this match.

From Moses' point of view, he has to be able to kick the Eels out of trouble when the time comes - and it will. Penrith have one of the competition's most dominant defensive lines who love getting up in the opposition's face.

Cleary also kicks for more metres than any player in the competition, but given Moses sits third in that metric, there isn't a great deal in it.

NATHAN CLEARY
Halfback
Panthers
2021 SEASON AVG
1
Try Assists
0.5
Tries
535.7
Kick Metres

The real difference lies in the forced dropout statistic, with Cleary at 19 from 17 games, and Moses just 16 from 21 games. Parramatta are unlikely to have as many chances as Cleary's Panthers, but when they do, they must build up pressure, and forced dropouts will be apart of that game.

The territory battle is going to be critical to this contest, of that there can be no doubt. Forced dropouts will play a role in that, with the team on top able to then unleash either Dylan Brown or Jarome Luai.

The kicking games are crucial.

NRL Rd 6 - Panthers v Storm

Clint Gutherson and Dylan Edwards
Provided the game is somewhere near even in the middle third, with two explosive sets of forward packs and two good kicking games, the abilities of Gutherson and Edwards are going to come to the fore of the contest.

Again tiring and fatigued middle third forwards, particularly with two coaches who seem to enjoy holding onto their interchanges and playing certain players extended minutes while seemingly forgetting about others, the roles of the fullbacks will become all the more important.

And this is the one key difference pointing the way of Parramatta.

While Gutherson has the tendency to get involved in absolutely everything, at every opportunity on the park - and he has to given how important he is to his team - Edwards seems to at times have the opposite approach.

Edwards doesn't have the creativity, spark or flare of Gutherson, and while he is a big part of the Panthers dominating the run metre categories as they do, he may need to pitch in more creatively for the Panthers to win a competition.

DYLAN EDWARDS
Fullback
Panthers
2021 SEASON AVG
0.2
Tries
0.2
Try Assists
4.7
Tackle Breaks

James Fisher-Harris and Junior Paulo
Two burly props with rather different storylines in the last couple of weeks.

The Kiwi Fisher-Harris has struggled since returning to the bubble from his race to Sydney to be at the birth of his child.

There is no getting around it. He hasn't had nearly the same on-field impact, his run metres down and his impact over the game just not what it once was.

J. FISHER-HARRIS
Prop
Panthers
2021 SEASON AVG
152.8
All Run Metres
0.1
Tries
1.6
Tackle Breaks

It impacts Penrith deeply - he is simply so important to their team and the style they play. Some of the "impact" has been lessened by Tevita Pangai Junior's emergence in the middle third, but it hasn't been replaced properly, particularly given how few minutes the mid-season recruit is playing.

And yet, if Fisher-Harris can get back to his best, or somewhere near his best, he is the pack leader for Penrith and completely neutralises this battle.

On the other foot, Junior Paulo has taken his game to the next level. He has played more than an hour in each of his last two games and three of the last four, churning out consistently enormous performances for the Eels.

JUNIOR PAULO
Prop
Eels
2021 SEASON AVG
124.5
All Run Metres
0.1
Tries
1.7
Tackle Breaks

He may be counting himself lucky to be actually playing this weekend all things considered after an ugly high tackle last weekend, but the Eels will be better for his addition to the team.

What's been most impressive is the way his minutes have gone up, but his productivity in those minutes has, if anything, only increased.

He had one of the best performances of his career last weekend against the Knights and will need more where that came from if the Eels are to compete and ultimately keep their season alive.

NRL Rd 2 - Titans v Eels

The stats you need to know

Outside of what's happened on-field this year, here is the historical context: The Panthers and Eels have only ever met in the finals twice, and the Eels have won both. The first was a 1985 38-6 beatdown at the SCG, while the last was a 2000 28-10 win at the Sydney Football Stadium.

But that's where the positive stats end for the Eels.

Despite that narrow victory over the Storm in Round 24, the Eels handled their tough run home in abysmal fashion, letting in 190 points across the final six rounds of competition at more than 30 per game.

That sort of defence will be picked to shreds by Cleary and co, with the Panthers able to put themselves into positive positions over and over again. They run for more metres than any other team, make more post-contact metres than any other team, make more kick return metres than any other team and also have more tackle busts.

While To'o is a big part of that, he isn't all of it. They still sit at the top of the charts for those stats despite To'o missing six games when he was out injured, and simply put, if Parramatta's defence doesn't aim up, they might as well not bother turning up.

What the Eels have going for them is a strong offloading game. They lead the competition in that particular metric, and while it's a dangerous strategy, especially against a team like the men from the foot of the mountains, it's one they will have to employ if they hope to have any success.

Where it’ll be won

Luckily for Parramatta, footy games aren't won on paper. If they were, it'd be over at the opening kick-off.

Parramatta are in with a chance, but their defence must be perfect. It must be up quickly on Cleary, Edwards, Luai and co, and it must be able to shut down Apisai Koroisau, who has a monster advantage in the number nine playing against Ray Stone as his opposite number.

Koroisau, as much as we haven't touched on him in this, has been rock solid for the Panthers and his clean and crisp service allow Penrith to dominate the competition's most important statistical metrics.

You'd have to think it's going to be won there too. If Penrith can get as many run metres as they normally do and bully the opposition, the pace and ferocity of the game will catch up quickly with the Eels, who would then need to revert to catch-up footy, which simply doesn't work at finals time.

Prediction

There is a lot less between these teams than you might suspect.

The Panthers undoubtedly come in as favourites, but To'o is such an important loss. Still, Nathan Cleary should be able to control the kicking game, and with a defensive line which has been unrelenting for much of the year, it should be enough to get the job done.

Parramatta were hardly at their best last week, and will need a performance like when they beat Melbourne in Round 24. Unfortunately for fans of the blue and gold, I'm not sure they have got that in them.

Panthers by 14.

What else you need to know

Kick-off: 7:50pm (AEST)
Venue: BB Print Stadium, Mackay
Broadcast: Live, Channel 9, Fox Sports 502, Kayo Sports, 9Now
Betting odds: Panthers $1.28, Eels $3.85
Head-to-head record: Played 102, Eels 58, Panthers 43, drawn 1
Record in finals: Played 2, Eels 2, Panthers 0
Match officials: Referee: Ashley Klein, Touch judges: Phil Henderson and Jon Stone, Bunker official: Grant Atkins