Cancel those September holiday plans.
From an almost impossible position, the Panthers have moved into the NRL top eight and now control their own destiny in a season that looked done and dusted two months ago.
Penrith breezed past the Titans 24-2 at Panthers Stadium last Friday night in a performance that was far from clinical but certainly showed that this is a side continuing to build at the right time.
Friday night’s clash with St George-Illawarra promises to be a contest of blockbuster proportions at Panthers Stadium, with a huge crowd expected and supporters now starting to believe that Ivan Cleary’s side can still do something special this season.
There is a fear that Penrith will want to take a breath now that they’ve reached the top eight, but hopefully Cleary can keep his young side grounded this week and ensure the message sinks in that the job is far from done.
If 28 points gets you into the Finals this year, and it most likely will, Penrith still need to win five of their remaining eight games to get there. Facing such a scenario, the four remaining home games are critical – win those and Penrith will only need to grab one win on the road against either the Bulldogs, Broncos, Cowboys or Roosters to ensure their spot.
The Dragons have been ordinary of late and surrendered meekly to Ricky Stuart’s Raiders on Sunday night, and their task is made even more difficult by the five-day turnaround they now face for this game.
It’s really now or never for Paul McGregor’s side, which sits in 14th spot on the ladder and will dramatically lose touch with the top eight if they fall to the Panthers.
McGregor has surprisingly rested Ben Hunt for this match, with Darren Nicholls to play halfback, but welcomes back James Graham from injury.
While Penrith’s backline appears much stronger on paper than that of the Dragons, you can’t doubt the firepower the visitors offer up front. With the likes of Graham, Paul Vaughan, Tyson Frizell and Tariq Sims in their pack, St George-Illawarra can certainly lay a strong platform up the middle of the field, and this is their best chance of dominating the Panthers.
McGregor labelled last week’s loss to Canberra as “the worst performance of the season” and said it was “unacceptable”, a message that could well fire the players up ahead of the clash with Penrith.
Penrith are still making too many errors, conceding too many penalties and missing too many tackles for any supporter to feel comfortable that they’ll keep their winning streak going, but by winning games they’re allowing Cleary and co to focus on the little things at training, tightening up areas of their game and making small improvements week by week.
Nathan Cleary returns from injury this weekend to partner James Maloney in the halves and that’ll be a welcome boost for the side. While many want to see Jarome Luai in the team permanently, being able to ease him into the week-to-week roller coaster ride of first grade is surely only a good thing for his future.
With their season on the line, the Dragons won’t easily give up the two competition points on Friday. Penrith will need to improve again to ensure six of the best turns into seventh heaven.
Tip: Panthers by 6.
Penrith and St George-Illawarra play at Panthers Stadium on Friday, July 19 at 7.55pm.
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.