It’s been more than four months since Penrith last played at Panthers Stadium, and it’s been quite a road trip for Ivan Cleary’s men since then.
The Panthers return home this Sunday afternoon sitting in second spot on the ladder, playing with incredible confidence and starting to make the rest of the competition take notice.
But as coach Cleary noted last Sunday, a true premiership threat would not concede 24 points against Cronulla – hence, there’s a lot of work to do.
That work starts against the under-pressure Cowboys, who were blown off the park by a red hot Roosters last Thursday night in Townsville and have reached a critical point in their season, and perhaps in the future of coach Paul Green.
On paper, the Panthers should cruise to a fourth straight win – especially given last week’s demolition of Cronulla and the Cowboys’ disappointing season so far, and ever-growing injury list. But things are not always that simple, and the Panthers will have to ensure they don’t let their standards slip against a side that despite sitting 12th on the ladder has scored 20 or more points on six occasions this year.
It is the Cowboys’ defence that has let them down for much of the season – they have conceded 253 points, the worst defensive record in the competition, and average 28 points against them each week.
It’s an opportunity for Penrith’s electric backline to shine – though unfortunately we won’t get to see that speed of Charlie Staines on show again.
Of course you can expect the NRL’s quiet achievers – James Fisher-Harris, Isaah Yeo and James Tamou – to lay the platform. They continue, without all that much recognition, to play their hearts out for Penrith every week and are among the key reasons why the Panthers sit where they do at the half-way point of the season.
The Cowboys of course have some big boppers too – none better than Jason Taumalolo – but with Michael Morgan missing, they lack the direction required to compete when it matters. They’ve also been rattled by the loss of Valentine Holmes, robbing the side of another attacking weapon and further limiting their point-scoring opportunities.
All in all, Penrith should be winning this one – but games like this are a real test. The expectation of victory now sits on this Penrith side that for the best part of the season has flown under the radar, knocking off big teams in results deemed ‘upsets’.
Now, they’ve proven they’re the real deal and they must deliver with that pressure on their back.
Another big win would be fantastic, but I’m sure coach Cleary would be particularly happy if the defence was tightened up – the Sharks scored some soft tries last week and they took away from what was otherwise a dominant performance.
North Queensland’s record at Panthers Stadium isn’t too bad – they’ve won 50 per cent of their games at the venue over the years, including a 26-20 victory last year. These two sides have always enjoyed great tussles and in their 35 meetings in the NRL era, the records are almost split – the Cowboys with 18 wins, Penrith 17.
Penrith should even the ledger on Sunday, and with their home fans cheering them on again, I’m anticipating it’ll be reasonably comfortable in the end.
Tip: Panthers by 18.
The Panthers and Cowboys play at Panthers Stadium on Sunday, July 19 at 4.05pm.
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.