So, we’re going to do this the hard way.
With 10 rounds left in the regular season, the Panthers are outside of the top eight and now find themselves in a desperate battle to play Finals football. They need to win six, probably seven, of those final 10 matches to be playing in the post-season – a difficult but far from impossible task. Six of the final 10 games are at home, which is a significant bonus, and on the journey to September the Panthers only play two teams currently inside the top eight (albeit Manly twice).
Penrith are a realistic hope of making the Finals but as last Saturday’s narrow loss to North Queensland showed, they need to improve significantly over the next couple of months.
The Panthers have the cattle and the skill, they just don’t have the game management. Poor last tackle options are crippling the side, as they have all season, a fact that is hardly surprising given the inexperience of Nathan Cleary at halfback. The game management issue can’t necessarily be solved in the next 10 weeks and will only come with time, but even some slight improvement would play a big role in getting those seven required victories.
The statistic that stands out from last Saturday’s game against the Cowboys is not line breaks, tackles, offloads or completion rates. It’s the one that shows the Cowboys forced three line drop-outs, while Penrith forced none. That comes down to last tackle plays that are too often letting the opposition off lightly.
While the crowd will not resemble the one that will pack into ANZ Stadium on the first Sunday in October, I’m willing to say this weekend’s clash between the Panthers and Rabbitohs is the equivalent of a Grand Final for both teams. Win, and the season stays alive. Lose, and it might just be all over.
The Rabbitohs are fresh after enjoying the bye last weekend but have struggled for consistency this season, hurt by the loss of superstar fullback Greg Inglis and the up and down form of what was once a formidable forward pack.
These two sides have already met this season, with Souths winning a 21-20 thriller at Pepper Stadium. However, it’s hard to get a read on the likely outcome of this match from that game given the Panthers were significantly down on troops due to both injury and disciplinary issues. On that note, perhaps Matt Moylan and Waqa Blake will feel they owe it to their team mates to put in a big performance on Sunday given it was their omissions from the match earlier this season that potentially cost Penrith two vital competition points that night.
It’s a shame that James Fisher-Harris still isn’t back from injury this weekend as the Panthers could do with a little more impact off the bench, with Viliame Kikau doing very little to impress anyone just at the moment.
I may be crazy given the Panthers’ inconsistent and unconvincing season, but I actually think they may run riot on Sunday. The team has an opportunity to make a statement about the next 10 weeks – if they fail, it might be time to look into some holiday plans for September instead.
Tip: Panthers by 16.
The Panthers and Rabbitohs play at ANZ Stadium on Sunday, July 2 at 4pm.
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.