The top of the table Penrith Panthers (how good does that sound?) head to the nation’s capital on Friday night to take on a Canberra side that sits precariously placed in 10th spot on the NRL ladder.
With success in the season proper comes representative football and the big test for Penrith coach Anthony Griffin over the next couple of months is guiding his side through those uncertain waters.
With Nathan Cleary, James Maloney, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Tyrone Peachey all playing for the Blues on Wednesday night, Penrith could feasibly be without four of their biggest stars for this game against the Raiders.
All four were named in Griffin’s team on Tuesday, but there’s obvious uncertainty surrounding Penrith’s starting side.
Ricky Stuart’s Raiders are much less disrupted with only Josh Papalii playing on Wednesday night off the bench.
For the Panthers, flying under the radar is now forgotten.
After that win over the Dragons a fortnight ago, the statement has been made. This Penrith team is the real deal. Joint premiership favourites, and playing like winners.
The obvious challenge from here on is to maintain the rage. We’re only at the half way point of the competition, which means the Panthers have a long way to go as far as defending top spot on the ladder is concerned.
Finishing first would not necessarily be Griffin’s game plan from here but staying in the top four would be.
Every win Penrith can pick up during this Origin-disrupted period is a bonus.
As the Panthers have proven all year, with setback comes opportunity. Whether it’s injuries, suspension or representative call-ups, nothing seems to stop the squad’s desire. If replacements are needed, they will answer the call.
It’s a shame Peter Wallace remains out for this match as the captain’s experience would have been handy to have given the current circumstances.
The Raiders have been hot and cold this year but are on a high after their last minute win over Manly a fortnight ago and have the top eight in their sights. They may leak plenty of points at times but they’ve also got so much attacking ability across the backline. The five J’s – Jack Wighton, Jarrod Croker, Joseph Leilua and Jordan Rapana – are extremely dangerous while Nick Cotric can consider himself unlucky to have not made the top 17 for the Blues.
While I’m expecting a reasonably high scoring encounter here, I’m also predicting the forwards will lay the platform for the eventual winner. Penrith’s pack has been dominating sides over the last couple of months, with great line speed and aggression in defence, and ferocious positivity in attack.
Panthers fans have every right to be on a high at the moment but this next fortnight may shake the confidence a little. On the road to the Raiders and then the Roosters, there is no guarantee Penrith will be in first place by the time they return home to play the Sea Eagles at the end of the month.
But keep the faith – this is a special footy side on the verge of doing very special things.
Tip: Panthers by 4.
Penrith and Canberra play on Friday, June 8 at Canberra Stadium at 6pm.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor.