Penrith have worked hard to find their way to the top of the table at the mid-way point of the competition, but there’s still plenty of people who don’t believe they deserve to be there. They expect the Panthers to fall over at some point; they think the visit to the top of the ladder will be a brief one and that other teams like the Roosters, Canterbury and Manly will eventually climb to the summit, especially once the Origin period is over.
But perhaps they’re just so surprised to see Penrith sitting on top of the table, that they’re not seeing the bigger picture.
I can assure you that coach Ivan Cleary and the playing group don’t think they’re at the top of the table just to warm the place of a glamour club like the Roosters or Bulldogs. The mission now is to stay there, or at least stay in the top four, and it all starts with ensuring that games like this weekend’s clash with the Dragons don’t slip.
Given the Dragons are without Josh Dugan and Trent Merrin, and the respective positions of these sides on the ladder, you would really expect nothing less than a Penrith victory this weekend.
The Panthers are close to full fitness and some of their more exciting players, like James Segeyaro and Tyrone Peachey, are in better form than they have been at any other period of the season.
Five-eighth Jamie Soward would be particularly fired up for this game given it is against his former club, and as expected the build-up to this game has been very focused on Soward and his awkward departure from the Dragons half way through last season.
Since the day he arrived at the Panthers, Soward has only wanted to speak about Penrith – he’s tried to move on from the Dragons, and distance himself from what happened there, particularly in 2012 and 2013.
But no matter what might be said, you can be sure that Soward has had a circle around this game since the draw came out late last year. No matter what may be said publicly, you cannot think for a second that a win against his former club won’t feel that little bit more special than any other should it come on Saturday night.
The form of Soward has surprised just as many people as Penrith’s rise to the top of the table, including many Panthers fans who never quite warmed to the signing until they actually saw him on the park. As it turns out, Soward has been one of Penrith’s better signings in recent years and securing his signature could well turn out to be a masterstroke from Phil Gould, who believed that Soward still had plenty to offer when others wanted to throw him on the rugby league scrapheap.
What’s most impressive about Penrith at the moment is their ability to score long-range tries. When Penrith was last at the top end of the table, in 2010, it came off a season in which the side scored almost all of their tries off kicks. That was never sustainable and when the finals came around, the Panthers were quickly bundled out. The 2014 Panthers, who have now recovered from a slow start in the point scoring department, can score tries from anywhere and create opportunities from a long way out – something that hasn’t been seen at the foot of the Mountains for quite some time.
The Dragons come to Sportingbet Stadium on the back of a much-needed win over the Sharks last weekend, but still in the midst of a troubled period that has included the sacking of a coach and the recruitment of Benji Marshall in an attempt to revive their chances of playing finals football this year.
Marshall has had a slow start but did show signs last weekend that the old magic is still there – it just doesn’t come out as often. Marshall and Gareth Widdop are without a doubt the two players that could cause Penrith the most headaches this weekend, particularly if the Panthers’ discipline isn’t as good as it should be.
Tip: Panthers by 16