And so, here we are again. The start of the journey. The first step.
When the NRL released the 2018 Draw way back in October last year, coach Anthony Griffin circled March 11 on the calendar and commenced a long, hard preparation through the blistering Penrith summer.
Deep down you know the preparation is for an entire season, but there’s something about that first game. It’s true that you can’t win a competition in March but nobody is denying you can take the first steps towards one.
And so even in a tough-as-nails character like Griffin, there must be a few butterflies in the stomach heading into Sunday.
Make no mistake, this is a BIG game. Being a local derby alone is enough to pack Panthers Stadium to the brim, but when you throw in the Penrith debut of James Maloney, the return to Parramatta of Jarryd Hayne and the expectations both of these sides carry with them in 2018, it offers something that seems more important than just the two competition points on offer.
Penrith are almost at full-strength for this one – but the loss of Dean Whare in the centres is a major blow. Tyrone Peachey is without doubt an excitement machine in attack but his defence is a big concern and there’s little doubt the Eels will target his side of the field with much of their attack when close to the line.
Peachey was exposed several times in the trials – he has a habit of rushing up, leaving his winger posted and offering the opposition a shot at the line.
Parramatta meanwhile look strong right across the park, with Hayne to make his blue and gold return in the centres and Bevan French grabbing the number one jersey for the season opener.
For mine the Panthers look stronger in the forwards and on the bench and with hot conditions tipped for Sunday, this could be a decisive factor.
Penrith fans will be keen to see whether or not their side has improved in attack when close to the line this year. This became a persistent problem in 2017, but James Maloney may well be the missing ingredient the side needed to ensure the points tick over.
His combination with Nathan Cleary will take time to build, but on Sunday we should at least see the foundations of what is to come.
With the spotlight on coach Griffin and huge question marks over the side’s trial form, a win on Sunday would relieve much of the external pressure that has been building on the Panthers in recent weeks. But all you can really hope for in round one is a sound effort – as long as the signs are there of a good season, fans should walk away happy.
I’ve been very impressed with how Parramatta handled their pre-season. Despite the excitement surrounding their top four finish last year and the return of Hayne, things have been reasonably low key, which is a credit to Brad Arthur and the team’s management.
Penrith meanwhile will have an opportunity to let their football do the talking after a headline-plagued off-season.
I’m expecting this game to be a war of attrition with the result likely to go down to the wire, but the Panthers appear to have a slight edge, especially at home.
Tip: Panthers by 4
Penrith play Parramatta on Sunday, March 11 at 4.10pm at Panthers Stadium.