It’s not often Penrith fans can feel this comfortable.
Going into Sunday night’s game against Manly at Pepper Stadium, the result matters little when it comes to the competition ladder – whatever happens, the Panthers will be facing an elimination final next weekend.
But momentum is critical at this time of year and having won their past four matches, the Panthers would want nothing more than to go into the Finals with another victory under their belt.
The side provided fans with another heart-stopper last weekend, getting home 15-14 over the Gold Coast on the back of a Matt Moylan field goal late in the game.
Penrith dominated the Titans in the first half and set up a commanding 14-0 lead but as has happened so much this season, handling and completion rates let the side down for a big chunk of the contest and allowed the Titans back into the game.
Like most of the year, however, the Panthers refused to panic and despite being away from home with a big crowd against them, managed to keep their composure and grab the two points.
Nobody could blame Manly for having one eye on Mad Monday heading into this Sunday night’s game.
It’s been a rough introduction to the club for new coach Trent Barrett, who went from the relaxation of ‘gardening leave’ at Penrith to the fire of Manly, a club going through a significant generational shift with household names like Jamie Lyon and Brett Stewart at the tail end of their careers and the next generation – highlighted by Tom and Jake Trbojevic – starting to find their feet.
The game plan for Penrith this weekend is relatively simple – hold the ball and you win the game. There’s enough points in Penrith, especially against a team like Manly, to put the flair and offloads in the back pocket and just get back to good old fashioned hard work through the middle of the park.
I’d expect a slightly different interchange rotation from coach Griffin this week, especially if the Panthers get out to a handy lead. Don’t be surprised if Matt Moylan earns a break on the sideline with Zak Hardaker to get a decent stint at fullback.
Griffin is also dealing with the loss of Reagan Campbell-Gillard for the remainder of the season, with Jeremy Latimore named to replace him this weekend.
Griffin has done a remarkable job to get Penrith this far, especially considering the mid-season overhaul he undertook, and to be able to go into the final game of the season with the Finals already secured is quite simply footy heaven. He’ll be able to test a few things before next weekend’s do-or-die game, and get a feel for what he needs to work on during the week.
It’d be disappointing for the Panthers to let this game slip, and there’s no solid reason to suggest the winning streak will come to an end this weekend. I’m expecting the Panthers to come out of the blocks hard, put Manly away and then ease off in the second half as the reality of Finals football starts to set in.
This game deserves a big home crowd, even if it’s to acknowledge the mighty effort of making the Finals this season.
Tip: Panthers by 14.
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.