Games at Panthers Stadium don’t get much bigger than this. First versus second, on the eve of Origin. This is the very definition of a blockbuster.
St George-Illawarra have been installed as favourites for Saturday night’s showdown, and deservedly so given they’ve only lost two matches all season and have beaten powerhouse teams like Melbourne, the Roosters and Cronulla.
Penrith have had a slightly easier draw but their run this season has been no less impressive than that of the Dragons given the injury crisis that has ripped through the team.
Both teams enjoyed last start wins, with the 16-2 scoreline not truly reflecting Penrith’s dominance over the Tigers last Thursday night. The Dragons meanwhile eventually out-muscled Canberra 25-18 in Mudgee, but it was far from an impressive performance.
In fact there were signs of laziness and poor discipline in St George-Illawarra’s performance last Sunday and I have no doubt that if the Panthers are ‘on’ for this one, they’ll be in with more than a good chance of taking the competition points.
So much is on the line on Saturday night. Top of the table honours, absolutely. But there’s still plenty who are skeptical of both Penrith and St George-Illawarra despite their lofty positions on the ladder. Whoever wins this game will officially be given “real deal” status and with a bye for both clubs next weekend, the reality of a top four berth will set in.
And of course, State of Origin can’t be ignored. James Maloney and Nathan Cleary have their final Blues auditions, while Trent Merrin is on the verge of regaining his treasured NSW jersey and could be just one good performance away from securing it. Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Paul Vaughan are set for an Origin-style battle up front, while a dynamite effort could see Tyrone Peachey secure a bench spot for the Blues. NSW coach Brad Fittler will be watching this one in very close detail.
Stopping the Dragons through the middle will be the real test for Penrith on Saturday night. The Dragons lead the competition in post contact metres, tackle breaks and all run metres, which is laying the platform for their strong overall performances. The Panthers sit just behind them in all of those categories, with these sides as close on the field as the competition table suggests.
Discipline remains a problem for Penrith – they’ve conceded 116 penalties this season, an average of 10.5 per game. It’s more than any other side in the competition and coach Anthony Griffin really needs to find a way to improve that stat. The Dragons will capitalise if the Panthers give away easy metres on Saturday evening.
I’m really looking forward to seeing the battle of the fullbacks – Matt Dufty has been on fire for the Dragons this year while Dallin Watene-Zelezniak produced a man of the match performance against the Tigers and appears to be settling into the fullback role he’s inherited from the injured Dylan Edwards.
This should be a quality game that will go right down to the wire – there’s nothing to suggest either side will let this one get away from them. Strap yourselves in, this will be an absolute beauty.
Tip: Panthers by 2.
The Panthers and Dragons play at Panthers Stadium on Saturday, May 26 at 7.35pm.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor.