If you still had some doubt about Penrith’s 2020 premiership credentials, it was surely washed away when the Panthers produced a near faultless display to beat Manly 42-12 at Lottoland last Saturday night.
Brookvale hasn’t always been the happiest of hunting grounds for Penrith teams over the last 55-odd years, but this 2020 outfit holds no fears – they play anywhere, they win anywhere.
It wasn’t that the Sea Eagles didn’t turn up to play, but the Panthers simply suffocated them out of the contest with a terrific completion rate, a strong kicking game and a weight of possession that no side could have competed against.
This Saturday night, Penrith returns to Panthers Stadium to take on a Raiders side that has learned how to play gritty football in the past three weeks, escaping with narrow victories over the Roosters, Rabbitohs and Cowboys – all games that went down to the last few minutes.
The poor green machine has to travel again this weekend – something CEO Don Furner seemed unhappy about this week, pointing out that sides like Penrith and Parramatta have an advantage due to their much easier travel schedules this season. Seems like Ricky’s rants have been rubbing off on the boss.
Despite the Raiders’ difficult travel arrangements, some would say this is a danger game for Penrith. But they’ve brushed aside that same tag the past two weeks in accounting for the Titans and Sea Eagles. Ivan Cleary now has his side on a seven game winning streak and while you would think they have to lose eventually, at the moment it’s hard to see that defeat coming.
The Panthers are just playing so effortlessly, and their epic defence in the first 20 minutes of games – which has become virtually impossible for opposition sides to crack – is helping to set up strong leads that are difficult to peg back.
Canberra, however, won’t simply surrender this Saturday night.
With last year’s Grand Final defeat still giving them a bitter taste, the Raiders have defied a worrying injury toll and the COVID-19 disruptions to sit in fifth place on the ladder, perfectly poised for an assault on the top four in the back half of the season.
The Raiders’ forward pack is where they can cause Penrith some trouble on Saturday.
Josh Papalii is one of my favourite front rowers – he just never gives in and isn’t afraid of anything, not even a rampaging James Fisher-Harris. Dunamis Lui has stepped up and done the job asked of him by Ricky Stuart, while the likes of John Bateman and Elliott Whitehead offer plenty of ability on the edges.
But Penrith have plenty of weapons themselves, headed by halfback Nathan Cleary who is in career-best form and lapping up every minute of the 2020 season – brushing aside the lockdown controversy that threatened to rock his year and producing mature, calm and classy performances week in, week out.
Even if Penrith doesn’t produce the 90 per cent completion rate they managed to post against the Sea Eagles, I can’t see them losing this one. The confidence is just too high at the moment – the Panthers have moved past any lull and now appear on a minor premiership mission.
Tip: Panthers by 10.
The Panthers and Raiders play at Panthers Stadium on Saturday, August 8 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.