It is the rugby league storyline nobody thought possible two months ago. Believe it or not, the Penrith Panthers are within striking distance of the top four and despite taking the long road to the Finals, could well finish where many experts predicted in the pre-season.
But with an “anything could happen” scenario surrounding the top eight, this will be a battle to the very end.
The road ahead is tough, with Penrith’s final three games all against clubs who are fighting for a spot in the Finals, starting with the rejuvenated Canberra Raiders in the nation’s capital this Sunday.
Sitting in 10th spot and four points out of the eight, Canberra seem the most unlikely side to play Finals footy out of those battling for a spot, but with the Sea Eagles, Cowboys and Dragons all looking shaky, there is a chance for Ricky Stuart’s men to make a stunning late charge.
The Raiders can’t afford to drop a single game and there is little doubt they’ll be switched on for Sunday’s match against a side that somehow stole victory from them back in round 14 in Bathurst. Revenge will surely be on their minds this Sunday given how important that remarkable collapse in the final minutes could end up being in the context of their season.
Canberra has looked a more relaxed team since the experts wrote them off a month ago, and have cruised to victories over the Warriors, Sharks and Rabbitohs in the past three weeks, playing the kind of football we expected to see in the first half of the season.
Jarrod Croker and Nick Cotric are forming a formidable partnership on Canberra’s left hand side and it does pose a potential worry this weekend with Waqa Blake and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak needing to nullify that potent attack. The duo all but put the Warriors out of the game last Sunday when they combined to score the first two tries, opening up a 12-0 lead after 17 minutes.
For Penrith, last Saturday’s game against the Cowboys followed a familiar path. Nothing spectacular, but enough.
Without playing their best footy, the Panthers have won six straight and are on the verge of announcing themselves as a legitimate premiership dark horse. That announcement could well come if they manage to down the Raiders on their home turf this Sunday afternoon, setting up a blockbuster final home game of the season against the Dragons next weekend.
Matt Moylan’s return last weekend was a little shaky and Penrith still have an issue with last tackle plays, which they could be punished for on Sunday – the Raiders love broken play and any seven tackle sets handed to them could be fatal to Penrith.
Penrith will be without Peter Wallace, who has suffered a hand injury, but could be boosted by the late inclusion of Trent Merrin if he passes a fitness test.
The Panthers will win this game up the middle but they’ll lose it out wide. Cotric, Croker, Joseph Leilua and Jordan Rapana pose a true danger and it’s Penrith’s defence that will ultimately decide the match.
There is no question that this is Penrith’s toughest task of the past two months and both sides come into the contest with form and confidence. I’m expecting it to be a high scoring nail biter.
Tip: Panthers by 1.
Penrith and Canberra play on Sunday, August 20 at 2pm at GIO Stadium.
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.