On paper, the last five weeks tells a tale that heavily favours the Panthers’ chances against Canterbury and its brutal forward pack on Sunday afternoon.
There is no denying that Penrith is in terrific form, collecting five wins in a row including four games in which they’ve scored 36 points or more, most recently highlighted by a 36-6 thrashing of Manly last Sunday night.
The Bulldogs meanwhile have lost their last three games and only narrowly escaped with wins over the lowly Sea Eagles and Knights prior to that.
This Sunday afternoon’s match sees a team that has very much found its mojo against a side that is struggling to hold on to theirs.
But as those superannuation funds say, past performance is no guarantee of future performance.
And the Bulldogs, as so many have pointed out, have some history with this kind of situation. They were in awful form heading into the 2014 Finals but managed to flick the switch when the smell of September came around, and steamrolled their way to the 2014 Grand Final, where they eventually ran out of puff against a South Sydney side that nobody was ever going to beat.
In many ways this is a David and Goliath battle.
The Bulldogs have managed to keep their spine on the field for most of the season – Will Hopoate and Michael Lichaa have played 21 out of 24 matches while Josh Reynolds and Moses Mbye haven’t missed a game this year.
Props Aiden Tolman and James Graham also haven’t missed a game this season (though some would suggest the latter should be sitting out this weekend).
Bulldogs coach Des Hasler simply needs to work out why it’s not clicking given the overall consistency and quality of his team line-ups – a task easier said than done.
On the other side of the fence, Anthony Griffin reassembled Penrith’s spine mid-season and has had to deal with losing both his starting centres (Dean Whare and Peta Hiku) for most of the season, as well as his starting props in Sam McKendry and Reagan Campbell-Gillard, both of whom won’t be back for the Finals.
The Panthers have got to the Finals on the back of a captain in his first year, a five-eighth who should be a second rower, a halfback who is 18-years-old and a hooker who wasn’t a hooker this time last year. The Penrith story in 2016 is nothing short of a rugby league fairytale.
Griffin simply needs to make sure it doesn’t stop clicking – again, easier said than done.
The two sides only met once during the season with the Bulldogs getting home 18-16 thanks to a last minute try.
This will obviously be no walk in the park for Penrith and just the atmosphere of Finals football could be enough to lift the Bulldogs and spook the young Panthers, but I’m struggling to find an argument to really prove that James Graham’s men can turn it around.
Completion rates win games and Penrith is simply doing it so much better than the Bulldogs at the moment.
The Bulldogs welcome back Sam Kasiano from suspension while Brett Morris replaces Will Hopoate at fullback.
Penrith has named the same team that thrashed Manly last Sunday.
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.