The Penrith Panthers take on arch rivals Parramatta tonight in the second ‘Battle of the West’ for 2014, and both sides have plenty to prove to not only themselves and their supporters, but to the wider rugby league world who haven’t quite woken up to the fact that both of these sides could well be the real deal in 2014.
For the Eels, that doubt comes on the back of consecutive wooden spoons and the controversy over coach Ricky Stuart’s defection to Canberra.
For Penrith, the fear is that the side – despite being 3rd on the ladder – fails to ‘show up’ when it matters. Or to put it more simply, they fail to fire in big games.
With tonight’s game broadcast live to the masses on Channel 9 and against a side now running fourth on the ladder, the Panthers again have a chance to fire in a big game and prove any knockers wrong.
Victory here would really solidify Penrith’s top eight credentials and start to put to bed some of the doubters who still believe Ivan Cleary’s men don’t have what it takes.
The good news for Cleary is that the rest of the rugby league planet has been dominated by State of Origin, leaving this big game to go under the radar – an unfortunate by-product of the Origin period but a blessing for the Panthers.
Penrith didn’t have one player in either of the Origin sides, which has allowed Cleary to have a disruption-free preparation for this game.
There is little doubt that he would have spent much of the past fortnight getting his players mentally right for this game, particularly after such a long stint on the road.
In fact, since Penrith were last at home (against the Titans way back on April 21) so much has happened.
There was that controversial loss to the Sharks, the big win over Newcastle and most recently the important victory over Canberra.
In the process the Panthers managed to get the win/loss/win/loss routine out of their system and from here, can focus purely on the game in front of them.
The real danger from the opposition tonight comes in the shape of two players – Jarryd Hayne and Chris Sandow. Hayne is obviously in some doubt after playing for the Blues just 48 hours ago, but a bye last weekend will ensure that the redeemed Sandow is chomping at the bit for this big game against the Panthers.
After being recalled to first grade against the Panthers back in round four, Sandow has been a revelation for the Eels and is a big part of the reason they sit in the top four. The little number seven is finally showing signs of why the Eels bought him for such an extravagant price in the first place, and his energy and enthusiasm will be difficult for the Panthers to contain. Difficult, but not impossible.
As for Hayne, he’ll obviously be a little tired and sore following Origin I but that’s unlikely to stop the pieces of magic he’s often able to produce.
Penrith and Parramatta play very different brands of football. The Panthers are a little more predictable and perhaps a little safer, while the Eels can be wild and produce something from nothing multiple times during a game.
The latter makes for some exciting football and is harder to manage for the opposition, but often calm heads prevail in matches like this and that’s where the games of Peter Wallace and Jamie Soward really come to the fore.
If they can control the game from the outset, they have a real chance to frustrate the Eels. The more frustrated they get, the more risky their play becomes.
The return to the Penrith team of Elijah Taylor is significant. His defence has been a highlight of the Panthers’ resurgence this season and will be a welcome addition against a big Eels back. Same story for Lewis Brown who also returns.
Tonight, the Panthers arrive on the big stage to prove they’re the real deal.
Tip: Panthers by 6