They say confidence is contagious and if that’s true, a plague has surely broken out at Panthers HQ in recent times.
Ivan Cleary’s side continues to ride the wave of a mid-season resurgence, repeating the efforts of Anthony Griffin’s team in 2017 by winning seven straight matches at the right time of the season.
Cleary has a chance to go one better on Sunday and make it eight straight victories, an achievement only unlocked once before – in 2003, when John Lang’s Panthers went on to win the premiership.
Standing in Penrith’s way is their toughest opponent to date on this sensational run of form – Ricky Stuart’s Canberra Raiders.
Stuart has the Raiders humming along nicely, sitting in fourth spot on the competition ladder having won 11 matches this season and with a bunch of individuals who are setting the competition alight.
Case in point – Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, who joined Canberra from the Warriors this season and is almost certainly a candidate for buy of the year, with nine tries to his name this season and 75 tackle breaks. He also has the most kick return metres out of anyone in the competition, easily ahead of the likes of James Tedesco and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
And what about Josh Papalii? This 112kg giant has been one of Canberra’s best this season and has come out of the State of Origin series with a renewed focus and confidence.
Taking the form line into account, this match promises to be a closely fought affair. Both sides have played St George-Illawarra in the past fortnight, with Penrith winning 40-18 and the Raiders collecting a 36-14 victory.
The Panthers got the job done in spectacular fashion last Friday night, starting the game well and then taking control again when it looked likely to slip from their grasp late in the first half. The dominant second stanza was amongst Penrith’s best halves this season and sets up this clash with Canberra nicely.
While the Raiders deserve to be sitting in the top four, it’s not to say they’ve always been world beaters this season. Prior to their victories over the Dragons and Tigers, they produced a disappointing effort in Darwin to lose to Parramatta and the week prior were far from impressive against Cronulla.
There’s no reason for Penrith to be daunted by this contest, in fact if anything they should welcome it – it’ll be a true indication of where they sit at this stage of the season and if they do manage to win, it will surely silence any remaining critics who have questioned the validity of Penrith’s stirring mid-season run.
The judiciary, however, hasn’t helped Penrith’s cause with the bizarre suspension of Viliame Kikau on Tuesday night. His loss will be significant, especially given how much ball he sees during a match.
With Kikau out, Liam Martin will most likely make his return from injury, and while he may not deliver the same impact as Kikau, nobody can deny he’s held his own when given opportunities this season.
I’m tipping Canberra to start the match well on Sunday but if Penrith can keep the errors low and implement a patient game plan, they should be able to reel in the green machine.
Tip: Panthers by 4.
Penrith and Canberra play at Panthers Stadium on Sunday, July 28 at 4pm.
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.