Whether you were sitting on the edge of your seat in the lounge room, or among the sea of maroon at Brookvale Oval, there is no questioning that the cruel ending to last Sunday’s clash between Penrith and Manly was heartbreaking.
To lead for 79 minutes and have defeat snatched from the jaws of victory is the most horrible feeling any rugby league supporter or player can endure.
But when the dust settled following the result, coach Ivan Cleary must have been pleased. Sure, the two competition points went begging, but he found out a lot about his side last Sunday.
He found out that his injury-ravaged team can compete with, and even dominate, high quality oppositions like Manly. He would have had some doubts over this following big losses to the Roosters and Rabbitohs earlier in the season, but can now feel confident that his side can match anyone on their day.
He also found out that a couple of his rising stars in the shape of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Will Smith are up for semi final football – they both played probably their best games in the top grade so far on Sunday.
But most of all, he found out just how much heart and soul his football team has.
I suspect he already knew that, anyway.
The equation this Sunday night is painfully simple. Beat the Warriors in the very last game of the NRL’s regular season, and Penrith finish in the top four. Lose, and it’s straight to an elimination game in week one of the finals.
The Warriors too may have plenty to play for – by the time the game kicks off at 6.30pm on Sunday, they’ll know exactly what the scenario is. Most likely, they’ll have to win to make the top eight.
All of that results in what is one of the most anticipated matches of the season and one with so many variables, that it’s hard to predict how it will flow.
The Warriors are coming off the back of giving the Titans a hammering in Auckland last Sunday, and their first half was nothing short of superb. Much like their game-to-game attitude though, they seemed disinterested in the second half, only adding two tries to their tally. They will certainly need to be switched on for the full 80 minutes against Penrith.
The home ground advantage is huge in this game, and with a big crowd expected at Sportingbet Stadium despite the awkward scheduling on Father’s Day, I’m expecting the Panthers to produce one of their best performances of the season.
For 25 weeks, the Panthers have been written off, laughed at and labelled pretenders.
On Sunday night, with the eyes of the rugby league world watching, they have an opportunity to make a big announcement before the finals commence next weekend.
The spine of Matt Moylan, Jamie Soward and the returning James Segeyaro is enough to ensure a platform is laid for Penrith to have more than enough chances to score points. And while the Warriors may boast a ferocious and powerful side, Penrith has shown on more than a few occasions this year that they can muscle up when they need to.
That said, I certainly don’t expect this to be a low-scoring game. I’m expecting both sides to score plenty of points, and in fact I’d be surprised if the loser didn’t finish somewhere in the 20’s as far as points are concerned.
In a blow to Penrith’s already dwindling player ranks, Adam Docker was suspended for two matches earlier this week for a dangerous throw.
The Panthers have enough injuries and the like to say “what if” for the entire off season, but you can only control the here and now, and to that end, I don’t believe that Penrith has run out of puff, or run their race as far as 2014 is concerned.
The NRL’s most resilient team still has something left to give – and I’m confident they’ll prove it on Sunday.
Tip: Panthers by 13