The top eight is calling, but will Penrith answer?
The Panthers’ victory over Canterbury last Thursday night combined with the Dragons and Sea Eagles both losing has well and truly opened the door for Anthony Griffin’s team to slip into the Finals.
In fact if all goes to plan Penrith will be in the top eight by 6pm Sunday night and will then control their own destiny as far as qualifying for September football is concerned.
But as we all know, very little goes to plan in rugby league.
And this Sunday’s battle of the big cats at Pepper Stadium is without doubt a danger game. Not only did the Tigers manage to produce one of their best performances of the season against the Titans last Sunday, but this game has plenty of added intrigue especially when it comes to the ‘Cleary Showdown’, with Tigers coach Ivan plotting against son Nathan. There’s even more family rivalry at play with Dallin and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak facing off against each other for the first time.
Truth is this will be a story much more interesting to the media and fans than the players – it may feel a little ‘weird’, as Ivan Cleary described it during the week, but all in all it’ll be business as usual come 4pm Sunday afternoon.
Despite the impressive scoreline in the Tigers’ favour last weekend there can be no doubting the Titans simply failed to turn up with their season on the line – producing a 59 per cent completion rate and a whopping 17 errors. But the match stats or the opposition won’t worry Ivan Cleary – he’d just be happy that his side found some much-needed confidence that he can work with in the remaining games of 2017 and the long pre-season that is to come.
James Tedesco proved against the Titans that he plans to leave the Tigers on a high, and his light feet will be a worry for a Penrith defensive line that hasn’t always been steady this season, and was dealt a further blow last week when Leilani Latu was ruled out for the rest of the season with a broken jaw.
One thing without doubt in Penrith’s favour is the long break between games – especially for skipper Matt Moylan, who continues to battle a persistent hamstring injury but has been named on an extended bench this week and is a good chance of playing.
It may only be a little thing but the extra three days of preparation could make the world of difference, especially given the Tigers had to throw in some travel back from Queensland as well.
With the Tigers well and truly out of Finals contention this game provides an opportunity for the Panthers to really put the cleaners through an opposition.
While a 30 or 40 point drubbing is not necessarily needed (although it would help given for and against is currently keeping Penrith out of the eight), it would be nice to walk away from Pepper Stadium convinced that the Panthers have what it takes to compete in the Finals.
With a fifth win in a row on the line, I can’t see the Panthers slipping here, but they’ll need to be on alert at all times especially in broken play where Tedesco in particular is most dangerous.
Tip: Panthers by 10.
The Panthers and Tigers play at Pepper Stadium on Sunday, August 6 at 4pm.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor.