The Penrith Panthers finally make their debut at Pepper Stadium on Saturday night as they prepare to settle in for a run that will see them only have to travel once between now and late April.
After brushing aside their round one form to demolish the Wests Tigers at Campbelltown Stadium last Sunday, the Panthers would be feeling confident as they prepare to take on the undefeated competition heavyweights in the shape of the Sydney Roosters.
It is a game that promises so much, with both sides considered legitimate Premiership hopes and both displaying in equal measure their strengths and weaknesses over the first two weeks of the new season.
And just to add a little something extra to the contest, the winner of this game will grab some bragging rights with the ledger split at 17 wins each out of the 34 games these sides have played against each other since the NRL was formed in 1998.
Along that journey the Panthers have won the games that mattered – the 2003 Grand Final being the highlight, while the 2014 Finals win at Allianz Stadium is something every Penrith fan keeps in their memory bank.
The past is just that, however, and both the Panthers and Roosters very much have squads that are all about the future.
The Roosters obviously edge the Panthers on experience and certainly this Saturday’s clash will test Penrith’s youth against a side that can make you pay for defensive lapses, particularly up the middle. With Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Dylan Napa up front, the Roosters are a formidable force.
The loss of Blake Ferguson is significant for the Roosters but they still offer a potent backline with plenty of points in it, and a halves pairing that is proving more than capable of creating the opportunities that backline needs.
Penrith improved all over the park against the Tigers but they will still need to improve. James Tamou showed glimpses of his Cowboys form last weekend but will need to lift again this week, as will Trent Merrin who was vastly improved in round 2 compared to his opening round effort against the Dragons.
If you accept that the game is pretty evenly matched, then you have to ask where the flaws are in the Roosters to ensure Penrith can capitalise on them and sneak home.
While their opening wins against the Titans and the Bulldogs were no doubt impressive, I do have some question marks over their intensity for the full 80 minutes. In fact it’s important to note that the Roosters have actually lost the second half in both of their opening games and came close to getting run down by Canterbury last Thursday night.
The Panthers on the other hand showed against the Tigers that they can maintain their ‘on switch’ for the full 80 – unfortunately they couldn’t find it against the Dragons the week before.
The Panthers also boast the better bench, and the Roosters will be given very little reprieve from the forward onslaught with James Fisher-Harris, Leilani Latu and newcomer Viliame Kikau all ready to come on after the initial stages.
This promises to be an absolute belter.
Tip: Panthers by 2
The Panthers and Roosters do battle at Pepper Stadium at 7pm on Saturday, March 18.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor.