While the rugby league world may be drooling over the Eels and Roosters at the moment, Penrith has quietly announced themselves as the real deal in this 2020 competition, especially after claiming the scalp of premiership heavyweights Melbourne last Friday night.
The Panthers have now played every side in the top four – beating the Roosters, drawing with Newcastle and very nearly toppling Parramatta.
Add impressive wins over the Warriors and Dragons into the mix and you have a footy side that is making some impressive inroads after a year without Finals action in 2019.
Even Storm coach Craig Bellamy noted Penrith’s credentials after last Friday’s game, making the point that this appeared to be a very different side to the one he’s coached against over the last few seasons.
Penrith is playing with energy and enthusiasm at present, and while that can sometimes be difficult to maintain, the reduced length of the season and no representative breaks means there’s every chance the momentum will continue to roll on, especially when the draw gets a little easier in coming weeks.
This week, however, easy is not in the vocabulary against a South Sydney side that put the cleaners through the Warriors last Friday night and welcomes back Jimmy The Jet.
These two sides love facing off against each other – and it’s rare that anything is left out on the field. Of the 31 occasions they’ve played in the NRL era, Penrith has won 16 and the Rabbitohs 15. Last year, their two matches went down to the wire – with one and four points being the respective margins.
But while the Rabbitohs do find themselves in the top eight heading into Round 7, serious question marks still surround Wayne Bennett’s team.
Any issues have been disguised in the past fortnight thanks to wins over the Warriors and Titans, but prior to that they were relatively easy pickings for the Storm and Roosters. Earlier in the year they were beaten by Brisbane, while they only slipped home by four points against Cronulla in the opening round.
The path to victory here is reasonably straight forward – it’s through the middle. The Rabbitohs’ pack isn’t setting the world on fire this season, and it’s why many experts can’t see them playing Finals football this year.
Penrith on the other hand have the likes of Viliame Kikau, James Fisher-Harris and Liam Martin in red-hot form, laying the platform for impressive wins despite the frustrating lack of ‘set restarts’ the Panthers are being handed by referees at the moment (it’s amazing how many of Penrith’s opponents have been perfect in the ruck this season).
The danger for Penrith is Souths’ impressive backline, bolstered by James Roberts’ return (albeit from the bench).
With Latrell Mitchell finding his groove at fullback and a strong halves pairing of Cody Walker and Adam Reynolds calling the shots, Souths can score points and score them quickly. Expect them to target Josh Mansour’s wing – he has appeared vulnerable in defence at times this season but has managed to avoid any major catastrophes.
Damien Cook obviously needs to be shut down, especially on repeat sets.
While I think the Rabbitohs will match Penrith for the first half hour or so, providing for a few nervous moments, I’m really expecting the forward tussle to prove the difference in the end and the Panthers simply have the measure of their opponent in that arena. I’d be very surprised if it’s not a relaxing last 20 minutes or so.
Tip: Panthers by 16.
Penrith and Souths play at Kogarah Oval on Thursday, June 25 at 7.50pm.
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.