Forget the first Sunday in October.
For the Penrith Panthers, their grand final comes this Saturday afternoon against the Canterbury Bulldogs.
This round 25 match will be played at the same venue as the season decider on October 6, and for the Panthers, it holds just as much importance.
Penrith kept their season alive with an impressive 28-12 demolition of Brisbane last Friday night, and a win against the Bulldogs will move them one step closer to qualifying for the finals – almost unthinkable a fortnight ago when many predicted they wouldn’t win another game.
The Bulldogs are coming off a loss to Souths but fought hard throughout the game and will feel they did enough to prove they’re well and truly alive in this competition.
But the boys from Belmore have been dealt a big blow with former Panther Frank Pritchard hit with a shoulder charge suspension by the NRL judiciary this week. It further weakens the Bulldogs forward pack, which is already without Sam Kasiano (knee) and Greg Eastwood (hand).
In fact, I’d say the Panthers go into this one on Saturday at 5.30pm with a stronger pack than the Dogs – Tim Grant had his best game all year against the Broncos last Friday night, Sam McKendry is starting to find his feet again and Sika Manu is primed for a big match. The form of Nathan Smith, too, was impressive last weekend.
“I think the whole Bulldogs squad is dangerous,” Smith said.
“They’ve got pretty good go-forward and a bit of skill as well.”
Smith’s assessment is fair but the Bulldogs are also without livewire fullback Ben Barba for this clash, which takes out a huge threat to the Panthers, who struggle to defend broken play – a Barba specialty.
To beat Canterbury, Penrith need to limit their mistakes and keep the Dogs on the back foot. This can be done by ensuring James Segeyaro – who bagged a hat trick of tries against the Broncos – is injected into the game early.
If he can frustrate Michael Ennis, drag in a couple of penalties and have the Bulldogs defending close to their line regularly, he will emerge as a key factor in this game.
Luke Walsh’s kicking game is important, but his tactic must be to earn repeat sets and keep the ball in play. The Panthers are looking fit at the moment, whilst the Bulldogs have a tendency to switch off at times, particularly when under constant pressure, and limiting their opportunities to re-group will be important.
You have to wonder where the mindsets of these two clubs will be on Saturday.
We know that Penrith will be switched on. On the back of two big wins over the Warriors and Broncos, their confidence is high and their season is on the line. Ivan Cleary will more than have them ready.
Canterbury sit in sixth spot on the ladder and can only finish as high as fifth, with the top four now an impossible task.
Therefore, perhaps it’s not about who wants it more, but who needs it more – and if that’s the case, there can be little doubt that the Panthers need it more.
It is important to realise that with Manly likely to be well and truly locked into fourth place heading into the final round, there is a strong chance they will rest key players for the round 26 clash at Brookvale Oval, a game many believe will be Penrith’s downfall in terms of a finals berth.
While the Panthers can’t have that in the back of their minds on Saturday, it’ll be something to smile about come 7.15pm on Saturday if Penrith walk off the ANZ Stadium turf with the two crucial competition points against the Bulldogs.
And who knows, perhaps it won’t be the last time they’ll grace ANZ Stadium this season.
Panther fans, the boys need you to cheer for them! With the season on the line, a big contingent of Panthers fans is needed at ANZ Stadium this Saturday from 5.30pm. The Weekender is helping you get to the game, and we’ve got 10 double passes to give away! For your chance to win one, simply SMS the code word PANTHERS to 19 19 18 and tell us who your favourite Panthers player is. Winners will be selected at Midday on Friday, August 30 and notified by phone. Tickets must be collected by 6pm Friday, August 30. Authorised under NSW Permit No LTPM/12/01138. Your details may be used by a related entity to advise you of similar promotions.