You only have to look back to the last time Penrith played the Titans to realise how much has changed at the Panthers in such a short period of time.
The two sides last met in late May and it was a major slip-up for the Panthers, going down 28-24 at home and showing real signs of concern for the crucial months ahead.
That match in round 11 featured the ‘spine’ everyone had dreamed about in the off-season – Matt Moylan at fullback, Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace in the halves and James Segeyaro at hooker (via the bench). Peta Hiku was in the centres (until he was injured early in the second half) and Sam McKendry started the game at prop – it was close to a full-strength outfit and Penrith wasn’t expected to lose.
Looking back on the game, it was one of the defining results in the middle part of the year that started to force coach Anthony Griffin’s hand towards the future. Slowly, he started a mid-season overhaul at the club that featured the inclusion of Nathan Cleary in the side’s next match against Melbourne, and the shift of Peter Wallace to hooker.
It was a gamble bigger than anything Kenny Rogers could possibly throw out, but time has a funny way of proving people right.
Griffin is now preparing his side for the final two matches of the regular season, and will then shift his focus to an assault on the Finals, with the club now all but guaranteed their spot in the top eight.
Hindsight tells you that Griffin was going to win either way.
Had the changes not quite worked, he would have shrugged it off as another piece in the puzzle we all like to call ‘next year’. As it turns out, he looks like a genius. The Panthers are one of the most in-form sides in the top eight, having won their past three matches, and the points are finally starting to flow – a major problem for the side in the first half of the season.
The Titans, who themselves have undergone something of a transformation since that Round 11 meeting, loom as Penrith’s biggest threat leading into the final fortnight of the competition proper. This Saturday’s game offers Gold Coast the opportunity to leapfrog Penrith on the ladder and potentially set up a Queensland blockbuster in week one of the finals. It’d also most likely put Penrith into the dreaded eighth spot on the ladder, depending on how the final round plays out.
While the sides are evenly matched across the park, there’s no doubt that the Titans have a couple of individual gamebreakers that could really tear the match wide open. The obvious one is Jarryd Hayne – he’s already produced a few memorable plays since returning to the NRL a couple of weeks ago but you get the feeling he’s close to delivering a full 80 minutes of magic.
Metre-eater Konrad Hurrell is also a danger while Greg Bird’s style of play threatens to get under the skin of Penrith’s inexperienced team.
While a home ground advantage will most likely see the Titans go into the game as favourites, I can see this one going down to the final minutes.
Tip: Panthers by 1
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.