Only a Clint Gutherson field goal stood between Penrith and the top of the NRL ladder last weekend, after the Panthers edged closer to the summit thanks to a 20-12 win over Souths at Kogarah.
After impressive wins over the highly fancied Storm and Bunnies in recent weeks, the second placed Panthers face slightly – and I stress the word slightly – easier opposition over the next month.
The schedule reads like this: Tigers, Sharks, Cowboys, Titans.
A dream run, you could say, except all four of those sides recorded wins last weekend and head into this middle part of the season with a touch of renewed confidence.
On statistics alone, Penrith should have the Tigers’ measure at Bankwest Stadium on Saturday night. They have a better average completion rate, concede less points and boast more talent across the park. More importantly, they’re in red hot form and pulling in the same direction at the moment – a key ingredient to winning and winning often.
But games aren’t won on paper and the Tigers certainly pose a danger.
Ever since coach Michael Maguire made wholesale changes after a shock loss to the Titans a month ago, the Tigers have started to find the right gears needed to make the Finals. They went down to Canberra in a scrappy affair but then blew the Cowboys off the park in the first half and put in a complete performance against Canterbury on Sunday.
The two most recent wins have put the Tigers in the top eight and proved they may have something to offer this year, even though they’re a fair way off the pace compared to the more fancied teams in Finals contention.
The Tigers can score points, and score them quickly, and while Penrith’s defence has been strong for most of the year, they’ll certainly be tested in this one.
While it’s hard to find fault in Penrith’s form right now, there’s still a feeling there’s something missing from their game each week. Perhaps it’s just a little bit of polish – that ability to finish off teams like the Storm and Roosters do so well.
Regardless, all you can do is win and Ivan Cleary is working from in front at the moment. Each week he gets to improve a winning team, and as each game passes you see a further glimpse of the serious footy side that is developing under his watch.
I’ve been really impressed with Dylan Edwards in his first two games back from a long layoff, and I’m expecting him to only get better over this next month of football. You can throw Liam Martin into that mix as well – this kid is so impressive, and he’s taking the opportunity handed to him as a result of Kurt Capewell’s injury with open arms.
Last week’s game wasn’t quite as relaxing as I predicted, and I’m tipping this one won’t be either. The Tigers have proven they have too many points in them to make this an easy task.
Tip: Panthers by 4.
The Panthers and Tigers play at Bankwest Stadium on Saturday, July 4 at 7.35pm.
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.