For the first time since round 3, the Penrith Panthers find themselves outside of the top four and face a real battle to get themselves back in there to ensure they’re a realistic shot at this year’s title.
The fight from fifth starts on Friday night against a Broncos team that sits in eighth spot, missing the opportunity to join Penrith on 24 competition points with a disappointing performance against the Warriors on Sunday.
The match stats showed Brisbane played better than the scoreboard suggests but anyone who watched the game could see they were down on energy and lacked any sort of enthusiasm.
For Penrith in their loss to Cronulla it was the opposite – enough energy and enthusiasm but too many mistakes and silly errors when it really mattered.
The Sharks’ kicking game had the Panthers rattled at times and Cronulla always appeared to be on top, with their experience really shining through. Coach Anthony Griffin summed it up well when he said it was a good enough performance from Penrith, but a disappointing result.
Preparation could be the difference between Penrith and Brisbane on Friday night. This will be the Panthers’ third consecutive Friday night game and consistency in your pre-match routine is never a bad thing.
The Broncos meanwhile have a rare five-day turnaround, and with Wayne Bennett admitting the side was rattled by pre-match distractions last weekend, it’ll be interesting to see if they can bounce back quickly.
This is a game where a couple of Penrith powerhouses really have an opportunity to step up and shine. If the Panthers win, I’m expecting both Waqa Blake and Viliame Kikau to have huge games. Both appear on the verge of a standout performance, and against a quality team like Brisbane they’d like nothing more than to deliver.
The really good news for Penrith is the return of powerhouse winger Josh Mansour. To win a competition these days, or at least threaten to win one, you need quality wingers who can finish off slick back-line plays and provide a few solid hit-ups to add some spark to slow sets. Mansour will provide plenty of that, though he may be a little shaky after so long out of the game so it’s unfair to expect anything too spectacular this early.
The return of Tyrone Peachey will also add some much-needed spark to Penrith’s attack on Friday night. He’s been named on the bench and often has his best games when he comes on late.
There are some doubts over James Maloney heading into this one. He is scheduled for a fitness test on Thursday.
With seven games to go until the end of the season, the Panthers sit at a fork in the road. They either fall further away from top four contention and simply make up the numbers come September, or they have a real crack at this thing. Brisbane probably sit at the same fork. Both sides may be heading in different directions come full-time on Friday.
I may have egg on my face come 10pm Friday but I actually think Penrith can do quite a number on Brisbane. If everything clicks, the Panthers will just have too much for a Broncos side that threatens to be under-prepared for this one.
Tip: Panthers by 16
Penrith and Brisbane play at Suncorp Stadium on Friday, July 20 from 7.55pm
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor.