Before a ball was kicked this season, the period between rounds seven and 10 always looked dangerous for the Penrith Panthers.
A marathon stint on the road, after an extremely tough draw in the first six weeks, was always going to be a huge test.
As it turns out, the sojourn from Pepper Stadium hasn’t gone too badly at all – wins over the Roosters and Raiders, and a narrow loss to the high flying Cronulla Sharks, have put the Panthers into the top eight.
Chalk up a win this Saturday over the Warriors and it has well and truly been a successful period away from home.
Penrith’s last-start win over Canberra was far from impressive but securing the two competition points was really all that mattered particularly after such an inconsistent, and at times unlucky, start to the season.
Now it’s time to start winning consistently and to start winning well.
As we approach the half-way mark of the season, the Panthers need to find their groove to be a real shot at a top four finish and a tilt at the premiership.
And while the side’s close finishes and form late in games would have most of the experts ruling out a visit to ANZ Stadium in October, the Panthers aren’t far off where they need to be to threaten the best sides in the competition (namely the Broncos, Cowboys and Sharks).
Penrith’s missed tackle rate is a concern that still hasn’t been fixed – 39 missed tackles against Canberra, 40 against the Sharks. Somehow, the Panthers are scrambling well enough to ensure that concerning statistic hasn’t been reflected on the scoreboard but it’s only a matter of time before the at times loose defence up the middle comes back to haunt them.
While Dean Whare and Te Maire Martin won’t be seen again this season, the Panthers are close to full-strength for this weekend’s game with Waqa Blake expected to return from injury.
There is some speculation that Bryce Cartwright will move into the halves for the game but we’ll have to wait until kick-off to see if that eventuates.
For the Warriors, Ben Matulino and Bodene Thompson have both been recalled while Tuimoala Lolohea and Thomas Leuluai return from injury.
Shaun Johnson is the obvious danger man with his erratic play often very hard to handle, and shutting him down will be a real key in this contest.
These words may well be used against me come 4.45pm on Saturday but I’ll say it anyway – I don’t love the look of the Warriors side on paper.
The Panthers should dominate in every facet of the game, with the only real danger coming from the unpredictable Johnson who could well show up Penrith’s defence if those missed tackles are again present.
While Penrith fans have needed a doctor on standby for almost every single match this season, I have the feeling you’ll be able to give him the afternoon off on Saturday.
This game presents the opportunity for the big win we’ve all been hoping for since the start of the season.
Tip: Panthers by 18.
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.