It’s so close, yet so far away.
Eighth place on the competition ladder is more within reach than ever, yet it could slip through Penrith’s fingers at any moment.
And as St George-Illawarra’s shock 52-22 win over Manly last Sunday proved, the Panthers don’t necessarily control their own destiny – other sides will have a say in their fate.
However, with six games remaining it’s fair enough to say that if Penrith keep winning, they’ll play Finals footy in September.
The next fortnight offers an enormous opportunity for the Panthers with clashes against the struggling Bulldogs and Tigers at Pepper Stadium a chance for Penrith to really solidify their post-season chances.
It won’t be easy, however, especially with captain Matt Moylan missing from the Bulldogs clash due to a worrying hamstring injury that also kept him out of the game against the Warriors a fortnight ago. Tyrone May again comes in to the side to play five-eighth.
It wasn’t so long ago that the Panthers put the cleaners through the Bulldogs 30-0 at ANZ Stadium, but I get the feeling it won’t be so easy this time around.
Canterbury are a club that often responds to and thrives under pressure and with coach Des Hasler’s future in the spotlight this week, the side’s Finals hopes officially gone and Josh Reynolds under investigation for an incident at a Cronulla nightclub, there’s plenty of pressure to go around at Belmore right now.
The Bulldogs will have something to prove in the latter stages of the competition and the Panthers aren’t necessarily playing first class footy, so there’s every chance of an upset in this clash.
The Dogs are also boosted by the return of skipper James Graham from injury.
Last Saturday’s game against the Titans was scrappy at best, but Penrith did enough to win and pounced on opportunities presented by their opposition, particularly in the second half.
What the Panthers probably lack at the moment is some spark when the game starts to get a little dour late in the first half or mid-way through the second, and the likely return of Bryce Cartwright will help with that issue. He came back via reserve grade last weekend and all reports suggested he created plenty of chaos in the 50 minutes he was out there.
I don’t mind Anthony Griffin’s current strategy of leaving rampaging prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard on the bench for the opening exchanges and then letting him loose for the final 60 minutes – it’s working well and as long as the Panthers survive the early stages of games, they’re able to bring on the likes of RCG and Leilani Latu and really own the back portion of the first half.
It’s widely known that the Bulldogs struggle to score points, and they’re not suddenly going to turn things around this week, which means the Panthers need to play simple, tough and grinding football. If Penrith are patient, the points will come and the Bulldogs will ultimately be frustrated out of the contest.
I think this match offers the Panthers a real chance to show the rest of the competition what they’ve got – and with a four point gap now on their nearest rivals, it’s not a match they can afford to lose.
Tip: Panthers by 16
The Panthers and Bulldogs play on Thursday, July 27 at 7.50pm at Pepper Stadium. The game is live on Channel Nine and Fox Sports.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor.