I said last week that the final six weeks of the competition would all be about one question: How badly do they want it?
The Penrith Panthers answered that question in emphatic fashion last weekend with a 22-16 defeat of Canterbury at ANZ Stadium, and now find themselves heading to Wollongong to take on a St George-Illawarra side that is very much fighting to keep their season alive.
There are simply no easy games for an injury ravaged Penrith in this final stanza of the competition proper and every week it will just get tougher.
The Dragons have a very soft run home, with the Panthers the last top eight side they will play before the finals, but a loss on Sunday would make the road to September very difficult given it would leave them stranded on 22 competition points.
St George-Illawarra also have something extra to play for with Jamie Soward returning to Woolongong for the first time since he was shown the door by former Dragons coach Steve Price last year. With Price now out of the picture, much of the emotion is taken out of Soward’s return to WIN Stadium but there is no doubt that the fans won’t give the playmaker a minute’s peace during the game.
The battle of the halves this weekend is particularly intriguing with two of the most experienced players in the game going against each other in the shape of Soward and Benji Marshall.
Both have faced similar adversities in the last 12 months and both have had to prove to a new set of fans and teammates that they still have plenty to offer in their ageing legs.
In Soward’s case, he has passed every test with flying colours and while he remains a liability in defence, his work with the football in his hands has been wonderful to watch and with youngster Will Smith given another chance in the top grade this weekend, it will be Soward that will control the show for Penrith.
Marshall took time to adjust back into the week to week grind of rugby league but has very much found his mojo in recent matches, and is fortunate that he has the experienced Gareth Widdop with him in the number six jumper to take some of the pressure off particularly late in the game.
Soward and to a lesser extent Smith were able to control the game against the Bulldogs last weekend, and didn’t allow Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson to get on top of them.
Shutting down such a pairing is no easy task and there is no doubt that the Soward / Smith combination will only be better this weekend now that they’ve had 80 minutes alongside each other.
Both will however have to aim up in defence – they missed a combined 12 tackles last weekend and you can guarantee the Dragons will target Penrith’s left-hand side defence, where Soward retreats with Jamal Idris as his personal bodyguard.
Soward’s defensive problems are no secret but with the tackling machine Elijah Taylor missing for the rest of the season, there is a huge fear that the Panthers could start to leak significant points if they’re not totally switched on for the full 80 minutes.
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary added a little mystery to the week on Tuesday when he named seven players on his bench, including Tim Grant and Kevin Kingston who have been playing in the NSW Cup for several months.
Lewis Brown, Jeremy Latimore, Matt Robinson, Sam Anderson and Ryan Simpkins also find themselves on that bench.
Penrith will be able to find tries this weekend – particularly if Matt Moylan and James Segeyaro continue their fine form. The real question will be whether the Panthers can contain the Dragons given the number of injuries in key defensive positions.
I’m predicting a high scoring game – somewhere between 30 and 40 points will be needed to win this one.
Tip: Panthers by 8