No matter what the rugby league gods may try, there appears to be nothing that can stop the Penrith Panthers.
One third of the way through the season and with something like $3 million worth of talent making its way through the casualty ward, the Panthers have only dropped two games (both by narrow margins) and have collected six wins to sit in second spot on the NRL ladder.
It is a remarkable record, and there’s every chance the winning will continue on Friday night when the Panthers ‘go country’ to take on the struggling North Queensland Cowboys in Bathurst.
The Cowboys look tired and ragged at the moment; more like a wooden spoon contender than a premiership threat.
And it’s not just the poor form of Johnathan Thurston or Michael Morgan to blame – the whole squad looks to be off the pace. Critically the engine room featuring the likes of Matt Scott, Scott Bolton, Coen Hess and Jason Taumalolo just isn’t delivering the impact Cowboys fans had hoped for.
The Cowboys are lacking in what the Panthers boast plenty of – energy, fitness and enthusiasm. Where the Cowboys are faltering, the Panthers are flying. Anthony Griffin has his team in such a mindset that 16 players could leave the field injured and the one that’s left would still hold his own and give 100 per cent.
All of that said, they say you should never write off a champion and you should certainly not write off a champion team.
Beneath the surface problems at North Queensland at the moment is a very good football team that played in a grand final six months ago and was deserved pre-season premiership favourites. At some point (hopefully not this weekend!), Thurston and co will find their rhythm. Whether or not it’s too late will be up to those rugby league gods to decide.
With Dylan Edwards missing through injury, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak shifts to fullback for this weekend’s game. He filled the gap left by Edwards admirably last weekend and wants to play fullback long-term so there’s hardly any concerns about whether he’s up to it. Tyrone Phillips makes his Panthers debut on the wing.
With Josh Mansour, Waqa Blake and Nathan Cleary also still on the sick list, Penrith’s backline resembles a shadow of what Anthony Griffin would have planned for in the pre-season.
That certainly has an impact on combinations and set plays, but as long as James Maloney continues to fire the Panthers seem to be covering it well.
These two sides have already played this season and Maloney dominated his opponents that night, with Penrith walking away 33-14 winners.
It doesn’t appear the Cowboys have learned all that much since that defeat a little over a month ago, and with the Panthers climbing, I can’t see too much of a form reversal in this one.
However, Paul Green’s loyalty only stretches so far and for a few players in this Cowboys team, it may be their last chance to produce some form.
As long as Penrith remains relatively error-free, they should have the enthusiasm and confidence to get home in this one.
Tip: Panthers by 13.
Penrith play North Queensland on Friday, May 4 at 7.55pm at Carrington Park, Bathurst.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor.