Penrith make their first trip to QLD Country Bank Stadium on Friday night to take on a North Queensland side that is counting down the days until the NRL bubble pops and their season is over.
These two sides find themselves at very different ends of the NRL ladder but it doesn’t make the road trip to Townsville any less tough for the table-topping Panthers.
In fact this will be Penrith’s most difficult road trip of the COVID era, with previous visits to the Gold Coast and Brisbane a little logistically simpler than the four hour flight to Townsville, plus bus travel to the airport, all in time for a 6pm twilight kick-off on Friday.
The Cowboys have been far from terrible this past fortnight – securing an impressive 23-22 Golden Point win over the Dragons and putting on a respectable show against heavyweights Melbourne at Sunshine Coast Stadium last Sunday.
But with so much more to play for, Penrith should be winning this one.
In fact, if Ivan Cleary’s side was at risk of lacking any motivation going into this game, it’s surely been renewed by the fact that victory here will secure the club’s third minor premiership – an incredible feat for this group of players, regardless of what happens in October.
Nobody can deny that Penrith should have put more points on the Eels last Friday night. With 64 per cent of possession and a mountain of chances close to the line, the 20-2 scoreline flattered their western Sydney rivals.
But what Ivan Cleary would surely be happy with was the way his side remained patient when things didn’t go their way for much of the first half. He’d be disappointed with the error count, but pleased with the way his young troops kept their head high and didn’t let Parramatta into the game.
The Cowboys will take some confidence out of their performance against the Storm and out of Penrith’s first half – knowing that their opposition is vulnerable if things don’t quite go to plan. Unlike the Eels, they would need to find a way to get past Penrith’s stoic defence, but with some exciting backline prospects, it can’t be denied that the home side boasts a number of try-scoring threats.
Coach Cleary has opted to rest James Tamou, Zane Tetevano and Api Koroisau for the game as he works to manage the workload of his squad ahead of the Finals.
But even with those three men missing, Penrith still field a formidable side with a forward back that should, all things considered, run right over the top of the Cowboys in Townsville.
Even Penrith’s bench remains strong, boosted by the return of Jack Hetherington who is likely to let loose back in Panthers colours and could cause plenty of headaches.
For the Cowboys to be any chance of matching Penrith’s pack, the inclusion of Jason Taumalolo is critical. He’s been named on an extended bench and is rated some chance of coming into the team.
Josh Hannay’s side has lost Josh McGuire and John Asiata to suspension.
Cowboys fans would have some hope of a stunning upset here, and final home games for sides out of the eight always pose a danger for visiting teams.
But I think Penrith will be too professional to let this one slip, especially with those pesky Victorians still breathing down their necks at the top of the ladder. The Panthers should be too good.
Tip: Panthers by 18.
The Panthers and Cowboys play at QLD Country Bank Stadium on Friday, September 18 at 6pm.
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.