Top eight awaits for Panthers

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As luck would have it, this weekend’s game against St George-Illawarra could give Penrith the second chance they needed this season.

After dropping their bundle against the Tigers earlier this month, it seemed that the dream of reaching the top eight may have run its course, particularly when the side went down to Canberra the following week at a chilly Canberra Stadium.

But as long as the Rabbitohs do what is expected and beat Canberra on Friday night, Penrith can return to the top eight simply by beating the Dragons on Saturday.

I use the word ‘simply’ very, very lightly.

It’ll be a tough task, particularly with Penrith’s growing injury crisis, which has now claimed impressive back rower Sika Manu for the next six weeks at least and Josh Mansour for an extended period.

This game has added importance when you consider that Brisbane and the Warriors play each other this weekend, meaning one of them will definitely go to 16 points, two clear of where Penrith currently sits. Conversely, one will remain on 14, and it’s a nice buffer for the Panthers if they get victory over the Dragons.

The Panthers have already beaten the Dragons once this season – an impressive 19-0 victory at Kogarah – but much has changed since then.

On the Dragons side of the fence, they’ve started to look more towards the future with Jamie Soward having packed his bags and headed off to England, where he’ll play the remainder of the season before joining the Panthers for 2014.

Penrith are in a totally different mindset – last time they met St George Illawarra, they were coming off their hammering of the Warriors and their tough, gritty win over Melbourne. This time around, they face the Dragons on the back of two losses.

A big boost for the Panthers is the likely return of prop Tim Grant. Whilst Nigel Plum, Adam Docker and Mose Masoe have provided plenty of grunt for the Panthers in Grant’s absence, there’s little doubt that the side has missed the former NSW prop’s go-forward and fitness, particularly in the first 20 minutes of games.

The Dragons’ season is teetering on the edge of collapse, so don’t expect them to take this game lightly, nor their opportunity to get one back on the Panthers following the loss earlier in the year.

The Dragons are, however, a team playing with very little confidence – and it wouldn’t have been helped by their narrow loss to the Cowboys in their last game a fortnight ago.

To win, the Panthers must capitalise on the Dragons’ poor form and confidence and shut them out of the game early. Unlike what happened against the Tigers, they must force the knife in deeper when they have the Dragons close to dead and buried – and not allow even the slightest chance of a comeback.

In front of their home fans, Penrith have a chance to re-earn the faith of those who turned out in big numbers to watch them against the Tigers.

I’m told, from within the camp, that confidence internally is still high. That’s sometimes not the case at this time of year – many squads switch off, knowing it’s not going to happen this year. They start to miss that odd tackle, or not scramble for that loose ball. It’s not happening at Penrith, but it could well start to creep into their play if they don’t get a confidence-building win this weekend.

There’s definitely something to be said for the disruptions caused by so many injuries and the ongoing second tier salary cap saga, which again has Matt Moylan in limbo, but Penrith needs to put that to one side, brush themselves off, and believe in the 17 players that take the field on Saturday night.

Make no mistake – this is the most important game of the season so far.

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