It may have only been six weeks ago but a lot has changed since the Panthers and Warriors last met.
On that Friday night in May at Panthers Stadium, Penrith were comprehensively outplayed, losing 30-10 to a Warriors side that seemingly ended the home team’s season.
But just six days after that crushing defeat, the Panthers surprised Parramatta with a 16-10 victory at Bankwest Stadium and haven’t been beaten since, collecting victories over Manly, the Roosters and Rabbitohs on their way to four straight wins.
Now, the Panthers head across the ditch to Mount Smart Stadium to seek revenge on Stephen Kearney’s side and attempt to keep their slim, albeit growingly realistic, Finals hopes alive.
Penrith will have to do it without halfback Nathan Cleary, who suffered an ankle injury in the first half of New South Wales’ crushing victory over Queensland in Origin II on Sunday night.
While losing Cleary is a blow, the Panthers have a ready-made replacement in the shape of Jarome Luai, who for some time now has been patiently waiting for a permanent spot in the halves to open up.
While Cleary will return this year, Luai will get the chance to partner James Maloney for the next few weeks and show fans what he can offer when he’s given a full 80 minutes to impress. Luai has not let the team down when given opportunities previously and will likely relish the chance to show his flair, especially after grabbing some confidence from representing Samoa last weekend.
Luai’s involvement in the try scored by Brian To’o against Souths a fortnight ago showed exactly what he can do with the footy and perhaps his biggest challenge will be taking a back seat to Maloney, who is in sensational form at present and should be allowed to lead the side around the park on Sunday.
If Penrith are to make the Finals from an almost impossible position this year, they need to be winning games like this one. The Warriors sit two points above Ivan Cleary’s men on the competition ladder and a victory here would propel Penrith deep into that battle for a spot in the bottom half of the eight.
Despite the daunting nature of the trip to Auckland, Penrith have a reasonable record across the Tasman, winning about half of their games at Mount Smart Stadium. The Panthers also have a pretty good record over the Warriors, winning 22 of their last 39 meetings including a Finals match at ANZ Stadium last September.
The Warriors should not be taken lightly and certainly have plenty of points in them when things are clicking, but they’ve been incredibly inconsistent this year and with the change to representative scheduling, don’t quite get the leg-up during the Origin period that they used to.
Dean Whare has been named on an extended bench for Penrith and if he happens to return, it will certainly bolster the side’s defensive stocks.
While the loss of Cleary will prove a disruption for Penrith, I’m confident they can get the job done here.
This side has changed dramatically in its intent and execution since these sides met six weeks ago, so I think it’s a safe bet to brush aside the form line and back the Panthers for a fifth straight win.
Tip: Panthers by 8.
The Panthers and Warriors play at Mt Smart Stadium on Sunday, June 30 at 2pm.
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.