As we head into the final round of the regular season this weekend, there is no question that the years of Penrith and Canterbury have been vastly different.
Ivan Cleary has guided Penrith to its first Minor Premiership in 17 years and a club record 14 straight wins, all while unearthing some of the game’s most incredible young talent.
The Bulldogs meantime have recorded just three wins, sacked a coach along the way and scored just 282 points – a woeful season by anyone’s reckoning.
The two sides meet on Saturday afternoon with very different end games in play. For the Bulldogs, finishing the season on a high with back-to-back wins and impressing incoming coach Trent Barrett (who just happens to be in the opposition coaching box) will be front of mind, while for Penrith capping off a regular season for the ages with a strong victory is the mission, as is lifting the J.J. Giltinan Shield on the back of a win.
Not surprisingly, Ivan Cleary has opted to rest some of his stars for what is – officially – a dead rubber at ANZ Stadium. Dylan Edwards, Viliame Kikau and Stephen Crichton will all be missing from the side – taking a well-deserved break before a tough month of Finals footy arrives.
The depth that Penrith can call on means that the side running out on Saturday is far from a reserve grade outfit, and given the lack of footy some of them have played this year it’s important to give them a run heading into the Finals. Cleary would also be determined to avoid any major injuries given how well Penrith has done on that front this season.
Canterbury showed last Thursday against Souths that they hold no fear against the better teams. The Rabbitohs took the opposition lightly and they paid for it, with the Bulldogs going out to what was ultimately an unassailable lead thanks to a dynamite first 25 minutes.
Penrith can’t afford the same complacency this weekend nor do they want a hit to their confidence just a week out from the post-season. The whole ‘they need to have a loss’ argument has sailed, no team wants to go into the Finals on the back of a defeat – the doubt that would inevitably creep into the squad is not needed.
The Panthers were impressive against the Cowboys last weekend, yet again strangling their opposition to the point of no return. The game was all but over after 15 minutes, Penrith simply coming out of the blocks with too much enthusiasm for their lowly opposition.
A similar result is possible this weekend – the Panthers would love to put the game in the books nice and early, allowing a comfortable second half to take place knowing that a huge home Final awaits.
Whether this game becomes a contest or not really comes down to the opposition. Do the Bulldogs put the cue in the rack after grabbing the scalp of Souths last weekend or do they come out and put in one last strong performance before putting this COVID-riddled season to bed?
If it’s the former, the Panthers will do this easily – they have the skill and firepower across the park to blow the Bulldogs away and make this nothing but a training run. But if it’s the latter, Penrith may just have a job on its hands to contain a Canterbury side that, on its day, has shown some praise-worthy attack, albeit too rarely.
Whatever happens, I suspect that as the sun starts to set on Saturday afternoon, it’ll be Penrith in front on the scoreboard – the question is just by how many.
Tip: Panthers by 20.
Penrith and Canterbury play at ANZ Stadium on Saturday, September 25 at 3pm.
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.