At the end of this preview, you’ll note that I’ve once again tipped the Penrith Panthers to win. And no, it’s not because I’ve allowed the heart to overrule the head or have looked at the NRL ladder upside down, it’s genuine belief that Ivan Cleary’s men are on the verge of turning things around.
I believe this weekend could be the start of the 2019 competition working itself out. There were hints of it last weekend – Canberra showed glimpses of their inconsistent form from recent years, Parramatta were exposed by the Knights and the Broncos found themselves back firmly in the winners’ circle.
There are seven clubs that have only won two matches this season and if you don’t believe that a few of those teams will play Finals football at the end of the year, then you’re essentially arguing that the top eight is all but locked and loaded, with only ninth placed Cronulla (currently on three wins) a chance of sneaking in.
Rugby league fans have a tendency to judge their teams in March or April when in reality the competition is only just getting warmed up.
There are teams in the top eight who won’t be there come September and others on just two wins right now who will be fighting for the ultimate prize. Now it’s up to Penrith to ensure they are one of those teams.
The Panthers produced probably their best performance of the season last Friday night and while they didn’t get the chocolates in the end, it wasn’t through lack of effort. Had a few 50/50 calls gone Penrith’s way, the result may have been entirely different and the side walked off the park surely feeling like they were edging closer to their best form.
Saturday’s trip to Wagga to play fourth placed Canberra is no easy task, but the neutral venue will add to Penrith’s chances, with GIO Stadium not a factor and the Viking Clap most likely downgraded to a soft applause.
Canberra’s form has been strong to start the season but against Manly last Sunday they fell into some old habits, and despite holding a 12-0 lead early in the game weren’t able to capitalise on what they’d built.
Even with Daly Cherry-Evans off the field, Manly managed to wrestle momentum from the Raiders and Ricky Stuart’s side never got it back.
For Penrith this weekend, being on top early is critical. While the Raiders have plenty of points in them and can certainly put back to back tries on the board quickly, they often get frustrated into silly errors when things don’t go their way and can be squeezed out of matches purely by the enthusiasm and structure of their opposition.
It sounds simple, but the more Penrith can starve the Raiders of possession the better. Kick to the corners, force scrum feeds, earn repeat sets. When Canberra does have the footy, the Panthers will need to be tight – especially in the middle where the Raiders have dominated many sides this season.
Penrith will of course send much of their attack down the left, hoping Viliame Kikau can spark points.
I’m confident the Panthers are on the verge of some strong form that will result in some crucial wins, but nobody can deny that time is running out. It’s time to stand up and deliver – right across the park.
Tip: Panthers by 10
The Panthers and Raiders play at McDonalds Park in Wagga on Saturday, May 4 at 3pm.
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.