The first time Penrith and Parramatta met in top flight rugby league was May 28, 1967.
On Friday, 48 years and one day later, they meet for the 90th time.
That first game saw a convincing win by the Eels over the newly formed Panthers at Cumberland Oval. Parramatta won 25-2 and Penrith’s Bob Landers was sent off. Yes, even back then, clashes between Penrith and Parramatta had plenty of emotion involved.
It wasn’t until the next year, on July 14 1968, that the Panthers finally overpowered the Eels in a premiership match – winning 14-12 at Penrith Park in front of 13,163 fans.
Since then, the Penrith and Parramatta story has taken many twists and turns but one thing hasn’t changed in the near half century that these teams have been playing each other in first grade rugby league: neither side likes to lose against their neighbour.
For the record, Parramatta has won 53 of the 89 clashes so far, Penrith 35 and there’s been one draw.
In recent years, the Panthers have had the wood on the Eels, winning six of the last eight clashes and very much starting to emerge as the big brother in a contest that has always seemingly seen the Eels on top and Penrith rated as the underdogs.
Penrith’s transformation in recent years, and their good form of late, means they go into Friday’s game against their arch rivals as clear favourites.
But despite sitting last on the ladder, nobody should expect Parramatta to lay down in a match against their western Sydney counterparts. If anything, the agony of losing their last two matches in the dying moments – against the Warriors and Rabbitohs – puts them in good stead to step up a level against the Panthers on Friday.
Penrith’s last hit out was an 11-10 win over Manly and while the bye probably didn’t come at a great time in terms of building momentum, it did allow coach Ivan Cleary and the squad to take a step back, look at the season so far and plan for a strong run during this State of Origin period.
For the first time since round two, the Panthers will field their first choice halves combination on Friday with Peter Wallace returning from injury to partner Jamie Soward in the halves.
Incredibly, the Panthers have used something like nine halves combinations in 10 games this season – that’s an incredible statistic and to have won five from 10 is outstanding given those circumstances.
Ivan Cleary made the point after the game against Manly that the forever changing halves combination was part of the reason Penrith’s attack has looked clunky at times.
The return of Wallace won’t necessarily add any flair to Penrith’s attack, but it will fix that issue of the attack being less than fluid. Wallace is a great organiser and his return takes plenty of pressure off Jamie Soward, allowing him to run the plays that drove Penrith’s charge to the top four last season.
Like all clashes between these two clubs, expecting the unexpected is a must. However, I do think Penrith has the stronger squad on paper and with the Eels very much out of sorts when it comes to their playmakers, this has the potential to be a game in which the Panthers announce themselves to the rest of the competition.
Tip: Panthers by 16
– Troy Dodds