For me, the key moment in Penrith’s gritty 26-22 win over Canberra at GIO Stadium last Sunday came in the 54th minute.
Jack Wighton took off down the western touchline with the game in the balance and a huge crowd cheering him on – the result seemed almost inevitable.
Then, the most unlikely of chasers brought him down – James Tamou and Reagan Campbell-Gilllard. It was a minor moment in an 80 minute contest with plenty of twists and turns, but it showed the kind of guts and determination the Panthers are playing with at the moment.
This Sunday Penrith yet again find themselves up against a team with their season on the line and so much has changed since these two sides met at Kogarah Oval way back in the opening round.
The Dragons were dominant that day, as they were for the first quarter of the season, while the Panthers were embarrassing. That single game set Penrith’s season back at least a month – maybe longer.
The tables have now turned with Penrith somehow eyeing off a potential top four spot and the Dragons falling out of the eight and barely in Finals contention.
It is incredible to think that the Panthers are a chance of finishing so high on the ladder given they were second last after nine rounds – no Penrith side has made the Finals after such a horror start to the year, let alone the top four.
So what is the risk for a Penrith side chasing eight straight wins on Sunday afternoon?
Some would say complacency now that the Finals berth has been all but locked up, but it’s hard to see this group falling victim to that. They’ve learned a lot of tough lessons in the 23 rounds that followed that opening round encounter and one of them is to never underestimate your opposition and certainly to not overestimate yourself.
From a technical standpoint the biggest improvement Penrith could make this weekend is in defence. They missed an incredible 50 tackles last weekend and still won – almost impossible to do in the modern game. They won’t get away with it for two weeks in a row.
But let’s not focus on how Penrith could lose, let’s look at why they will win.
A fullback in form – Dylan Edwards has emerged as one of the most exciting players at the club and the Panthers are finally getting some decent metres from kick returns.
Props finding their groove – after a slow start to the year, James Tamou is playing some of his best footy while Reagan Campbell-Gillard is an absolute machine.
A halfback in control – this is Nathan Cleary’s team now, and the side is starting to reflect his calm and patient approach. It’s why Matt Moylan being out this weekend is not as critical as it once would have been.
You want more? Waqa Blake’s exciting footwork, Bryce Cartwright finding his rhythm after a tough year and James Fisher-Harris starting to fire up at the right time of the year.
The storylines of a team that is very much the real deal are starting to form.
The Dragons are playing for their lives, but Penrith should be too good.
Tip: Panthers by 18.
Penrith play St George-Illawarra on Sunday, August 27 at 4pm at Pepper Stadium.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor.