Very few people who had seen Penrith’s performances against Cronulla and Parramatta could have anticipated the side’s first class effort against Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium last Friday.
Delivering their best performance of the season, the Panthers played for the full 80 minutes, ambushed the Broncos on their home turf and displayed the kind of football that fans have been waiting to see for more than five months.
It was a win that has sent the Panthers back into the top eight and with a little over a month to go before the finals, the side now controls its own destiny as far as a top eight finish is concerned.
This Saturday afternoon’s clash with the New Zealand Warriors is critical for Penrith’s finals hopes. A win would put the Panthers four points clear of the Warriors on the competition table and with a reasonably soft run home, could be enough to secure a top eight finish as long as there’s no embarrassing stumbles against teams like the Roosters and Knights in the coming weeks.
Penrith has already beaten the Warriors this year – a 30-18 victory in Christchurch back in mid-May – but it’ll be a very different Panthers outfit that takes the field in Auckland this Saturday.
On that day Jamie Soward produced a confidence-boosting individual performance to lead his side to victory, but just a couple of months later, the 30-year-old is half a world away in England and the Panthers have ushered in a new, youthful brigade to take the side forward.
There is no doubt that the chief playmakers of that youthful brigade, Nathan Cleary and Bryce Cartwright, would have gained enormous confidence from beating the Broncos at Suncorp.
But perhaps what was most pleasing was the way the side’s experienced players stood up and ensured things remained on track for the full 80 minutes. Trent Merrin again clocked up over 200 metres and made 32 tackles, while Matt Moylan was busy throughout the contest, clocking up 138 metres.
The same thing needs to happen this Saturday against a Warriors side that is about as inconsistent as the NRL’s video Bunker. As they showed last week against the Raiders, the Warriors can score points very quickly and make a game out of a seemingly one-sided contest, but too often they fall asleep and allow opposition teams to dominate them for long periods of a game.
Like they did against Brisbane, the Panthers need to control the contest from the outset, hang on to the ball and play as much of the game in the Warriors’ half as possible.
The Panthers do need to be patient, however. The Warriors will eventually get frustrated and the opportunities will open up for players like Cartwright and Moylan, but if they try to do too much too early, it could be to their detriment.
Whichever team manages to dominate this game in the middle of the ruck should walk away with victory, but a high error rate from both sides wouldn’t surprise me – in fact, this could be a very frustrating game to watch.
Tip: Panthers by 8
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.