Had this been any other time, Bankwest Stadium would be packed to capacity this Friday night, hosting a nervous crowd ahead of one of the most eagerly anticipated Battle of the West contests in recent years.
Instead the shiny new stadium will be nearly empty as it hosts first placed Parramatta and third placed Penrith – both undefeated teams, both coming off nice wins last weekend.
It is a contest deserving of a bumper crowd but one that is likely to deliver a belter regardless.
Parramatta have come back from the Coronavirus shutdown with premiership contender written all over them – demolishing Brisbane 34-6 and downing Manly 19-16. Critics could argue there’s still some cracks in that form line – the Broncos are a basketcase, while Manly should have won save for a refereeing bungle close to full-time.
Regardless, this is an Eels side that will almost certainly be contending for a top four spot at the end of the season, and Brad Arthur has them looking tough and switched on.
As for the Panthers, their shaky comeback game (a 14-all draw with Newcastle) was but a memory last Friday when they demolished the Warriors 26-0 at Campbelltown Stadium.
Without question coach Ivan Cleary would have been most impressed with the 0 rather than the 26 – it was a nice defensive effort against a side playing with plenty of confidence after shutting out the Dragons the previous week.
The big change for Penrith this week is the return of halfback Nathan Cleary, banished to the sidelines after that TikTok drama during the shutdown. Cleary will add some much-needed direction to Penrith’s attack, and almost certainly sharpen up the short kicking game, which has been lacking in the last two matches.
Matt Burton – full of confidence after a two-try performance against the Warriors – has been relegated to the bench, with Jarome Luai to partner Cleary despite a somewhat shaky game last week.
There is no question that on their day, Parramatta have the backline to do some real damage to Penrith. The likes of Gutherson, Sivo, Jennings, Blake and Moses are the stuff of nightmares for opposition players.
But Penrith’s forward pack is where I’m confident they can lay a platform that opens up a real chance for victory. James Fisher-Harris is playing like a machine at the moment – carrying his Merv Cartwright Medal winning form from last season into 2020, and then some. He ran for 257 metres last weekend – and wanted more. His battle with former Panther Reagan Campbell-Gillard will be something to savour.
And then you’ve got James Tamou fighting for his future in what will be his 250th NRL game, Moses Leota as keen as an Energiser bunny and Isaah Yeo producing his usual workman like performance. It is a pack that can dominate, especially if it finds more confidence within itself.
Penrith’s bench also looks stronger, which is a key late in the game.
This will be an absolute beauty, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the game is still in the balance come the last 10 minutes. Perhaps Cleary’s boot will be the deciding factor after all is said and done.
Tip: Panthers by 1.
The Panthers and Eels do battle on Friday, June at Bankwest Stadium from 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.