Finals footy comes early this Friday night when arch rivals Penrith and Parramatta meet at Panthers Stadium in a game that has been highly anticipated for several weeks.
In fact it’s probably fair to say that the Panthers had one eye on this clash when they limped their way to a 25-12 win over Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium last Thursday night.
So much is at stake in this game.
A Penrith win will secure Ivan Cleary’s side a home Final and ensure they go one step closer to what appears to be an inevitable minor premiership. Meantime Parramatta can lock up a top four finish if they can follow up Sunday’s win over the Warriors with another victory.
The winner will also take an extreme confidence boost just three weeks out from the Finals, especially given both sides play teams outside of the top eight in the final two weeks of the competition.
But most of all, western Sydney bragging rights are on the line. And the Eels would go into this game full of confidence with the knowledge they’re the only side to have beaten Penrith this season, taking advantage of a second half collapse at Bankwest Stadium back in June.
Since then the Eels have managed to maintain a top four spot but lost their position atop the NRL ladder, while the Panthers have gone from strength to strength, winning their next 12 games and taking a three point competition lead, always with an eye on the re-match.
This promises to be an exciting, close contest. While the team that dominates the forward battle will set up a platform for victory, it is the respective sides’ exciting backlines that are likely to prove the difference.
The Eels offer plenty of electricity – Clinton Gutherson, Maika Sivo and Waqa Blake have all been in terrific from this season, while Michael Jennings and Blake Ferguson add the balance of experience.
But Penrith has quietly gone about assembling one of the most impressive backlines in the comp, albeit understated in terms of the wider rugby league world. Stephen Crichton, Brian To’o and Brent Naden offer the youth and enthusiasm while Dylan Edwards and Josh Mansour throw in the experience, and all five have been outstanding.
A brilliant individual performance is likely to define this game. It could be Viliame Kikau going on a rampage, or Nathan Cleary producing a masterclass at halfback. Maybe it’ll be a Maika Sivo double or perhaps Reagan Campbell-Gillard will be fired up against his old club and tear through the middle.
Regardless, to the winner goes realistic talk about a premiership, while the loser will attract doubt and disdain.
There’s plenty to like about both these teams, but the Panthers have been far more consistent since these sides last met and I have no doubt they’ll be switched on as they take another step towards proving their critics wrong.
I’m predicting a tight first half but the Panthers to put the foot down in the second. Expect both sides to come out of the contest with few bumps and bruises – it’ll be a wild, high energy ride.
Tip: Panthers by 8.
The Panthers and Eels play at Panthers Stadium on Friday, September 11 at 7.55pm.
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.