With three games to go in the regular season, the Penrith Panthers find themselves exactly where the statistics tell us they deserve to be: outside of the top eight.
An impressive winning streak mid-season may have revived Penrith’s Finals hopes, but in the end the numbers speak for themselves.
This Penrith side has scored just 343 points this season. To put it into context, that’s just a solitary point more than the last-placed Gold Coast Titans. They’ve missed 845 tackles this year, more than any team in the competition, and have conceded a competition-high 164 penalties.
James Maloney has missed more tackles than anybody else in the NRL. Nobody has made more handling errors than Dylan Edwards. Josh Mansour has made 31 errors, the second worst in the competition.
Eventually, the numbers just have to catch you out.
Maloney, Edwards and Mansour are experienced NRL players with plenty of highlights littering their careers, but to put it as simply as possible, it just hasn’t clicked in 2019.
The mid-season re-build ordered by coach Ivan Cleary – which included farewelling the likes of Waqa Blake and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak – saw some exciting youth come through, but with youth comes inconsistency, which can only be improved with more game time and matches under their belts.
In short, Penrith’s season has become a horror combination of experienced players not delivering and inexperienced ones showing their, to use Ivan Cleary’s word, immaturity.
The Panthers have a chance to keep their season alive when they take on a North Queensland side that was expected to fire this year but will miss the Finals for a second consecutive season.
While Paul Green’s side was humiliated by the Knights last weekend, they’ll be a much tougher prospect at home, but are vulnerable with Jason Taumalolo likely to miss another week with a foot injury.
For Penrith the equation is simple, win two of the final three games and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll play Finals football. Win all three and you should definitely be there.
Given the Panthers play the red-hot Roosters at the SCG next week, you don’t have to be a genius to work out that this is very much the last shot at Finals football for Cleary’s side. Lose this and the players can visit the travel agent first thing Saturday morning.
The Panthers didn’t respect Brisbane enough last Friday night. They tried to go around them rather than do the hard work through the middle, and didn’t trust each other enough in defence. Despite having 50 per cent of the ball, Penrith only completed 70 per cent of their sets and missed 50 tackles. Produce those sort of numbers again and Penrith will most likely be leaving Townsville without the competition points.
Improving on those numbers is easier said than done but Penrith must find a way. Each individual needs to find 10 per cent more in their game – one less error, one less missed tackle, one more run. 10 per cent more heart, too.
Everything is on the line here.
Tip: Panthers by 10.
The Panthers and Cowboys play at 1300SMILES Stadium on Friday, August 23 at 6pm.
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.