For the first time in what seems like forever, the Penrith Panthers will be forced onto the road for their opening round encounter of the NRL season – and the trip to Canberra is never an easy task.
Thankfully, visiting the nation’s capital is a little more comfortable for both players and spectators in the first week of March than it is come the middle of winter, however the bureau is predicting an unusually high temperature of 35 degrees for Saturday.
Like all round one matches, it’s hard to predict what will unfold when these two old rivals battle it out on Saturday, with both sides having plenty of reasons to be positive heading into the season.
The Raiders produced a little bit of a surprise on Tuesday when they named Blake Austin to come off the bench, with Sam Williams and Aiden Sezer to partner in the halves.
Austin scored 14 tries last season, produced 16 line-breaks and was credited with seven try assists.
I was positive that he and Sezer would partner in the halves and offer Canberra stability in that pairing, but obviously coach Ricky Stuart has other plans.
While the Raiders lost a couple of handy players in David Shillington (Gold Coast), Mitch Cornish (Parramatta) and Josh McCrone (Dragons), the Raiders have kept a relatively similar squad to the one that Stuart started to build last year, adding Sezer as well as a handful of depth players.
At Penrith, there’s no surprise to see Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace named in the halves – the pair deserve the first shot despite pressure coming from elsewhere, and with Matt Moylan missing from this game there was really no way that Griffin could have taken the enormous risk of handing Te Maire Martin his first grade debut in the opening round of the season.
It feels a little like the wheels have fallen off the Panthers bandwagon in recent weeks – the experts have written the team off, the TAB has them at considerable outsiders for this weekend’s game and fans seem a little uncertain about what will happen when the side hits the park on Saturday afternoon.
But there’s really no reason to doubt Penrith’s credentials this season. While the Moylan injury speedbump is not ideal, the Panthers still boast a dangerous backline that includes a rejuvenated Waqa Blake, who was without doubt the star of the pre-season, and new recruit Peta Hiku, who will be keen to prove those who lured him to the club right.
The backline is not quite what Anthony Griffin would have been aiming for a few weeks ago but it is still strong enough to get the job done – as long as Soward and Wallace control the show from the start and make an early impact on the match.
Penrith’s forward pack is full of speed, talent and mobility – I can’t wait to see Bryce Cartwright and Tyrone Peachey in full flight this season, and Trent Merrin will add that grunt that the Panthers lacked at some stages last year.
This game really is a flip of the coin job – you have to throw trial form out the window and really, it comes down to who has handled the week best.
Tip: Panthers by 4.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Senior Writer. He has more than 15 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.