Penrith fans are most likely on the verge of giving up on season 2015, a year that promised so much but has been torn apart by injury and now appears destined for the books of “what could have been”.
However, there is still some hope at the back end of the season.
Admittedly, I’ve got the Panthers down for losses against the Storm this Friday and against the Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium in a few weeks. But I think they can realistically win matches against Canberra (twice), Parramatta, the Warriors, St George-Illawarra and Newcastle.
That’s 12 competition points and enough to ensure the Panthers qualify for the finals with 30 points.
It sounds simple enough in theory, but we all know that theory doesn’t win football games.
All the Panthers can do at the moment is take things week by week, and the first task is a trip to Melbourne to play a Storm side that loves celebrating big player milestones – and they’ve got a beauty this week.
Cameron Smith plays his 300th first grade game, an enormous achievement and one made even bigger by the fact he’s returning home for the first time since Queensland’s sensational series win.
The Storm’s preparation hasn’t been ideal for this game and they confront the shortest turnaround allowed by the NRL – Sunday afternoon in New Zealand into Friday night at home.
However, Melbourne are such a professional outfit that such issues rarely worry them.
Coach Craig Bellamy will simply be happy that his side is back under his total control, with the Origin series that so often disrupts the Storm now confined to history as the race for the finals begins.
Bellamy was unhappy with the way his side started the game against the Warriors last Sunday, and you can be sure that Melbourne won’t be slow out of the blocks.
The key to beating the Panthers at the moment is to have a good start, get a couple of tries on the board and then settle things down. Penrith don’t have the ability or confidence in attack at the moment to chase a game – a 12 point lead is probably enough for opposition sides to feel comfortable.
The Panthers simply couldn’t contain the Roosters last weekend and coach Ivan Cleary made it clear post-game that he was unhappy with the way his side defended, even questioning the attitude of his squad when it came to defence.
It would appear Cleary is over blaming injuries. He knows that now is not the time for excuses. After all, all the complaining in the world isn’t going to change the length of the injury list and we’re at a stage in the season now where Cleary simply needs the absolute best out of the 17 blokes who run onto the field each and every week. The problem is, some of those 17 look out of sorts.
Jamie Soward is clearly struggling with a couple of injuries that will almost certainly need post-season attention, while Waqa Blake is not yet to the standard of a week-to-week first grade footballer but can’t be dropped while Penrith’s outside backs are so decimated. In truth it’s probably doing him more harm than good at the moment, but Cleary has little choice.
Penrith will put in one hell of an effort on Friday, but I can’t see it being enough against a hungry, professional Storm outfit that love this time of year.
Tip: Storm by 16
– Troy Dodds