The talk is almost over. The nerves? They’re at fever pitch.
It’s games like this that every sports fan dreams of, but for one set of supporters, this Saturday night’s Preliminary Final between Penrith and South Sydney will end as a nightmare. For the other fans, the magic of Grand Final week will commence almost immediately.
The Panthers and Rabbitohs meet in a Finals match for the first time, and it’s a mouth-watering contest – the record-breaking Panthers, who have dropped just one match all year, up against the red hot Rabbitohs, who have charged into premiership contention on the back of an incredible three weeks of attacking football.
Don’t let anyone tell you this is a sure thing for either team. Preliminary Finals don’t work that way – this will be a close contest, with both teams putting everything on the line as they chase the prospect of a Grand Final appearance.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of the Rabbitohs. They piled on the points against the Roosters, Knights and Eels and looked anything but a team that finished sixth on the ladder and lost to the Bulldogs just a month ago.
But it’s important to break down those wins.
The Roosters rested a number of players, and were clearly not switched on that night at ANZ Stadium. Perhaps the first cracks were starting to appear in their armour as their ageing squad limped to the end of the season.
The Knights were awful at the back end of their campaign, essentially making up the numbers in the top eight, and despite taking an early lead offered little for much of the game in the first week of the Finals.
And the Eels? They peaked long ago, and after a disrupted week with injuries and Michael Jennings’ suspension, couldn’t aim up when the Rabbitohs put the pedal down last Saturday night.
You can only play what’s in front of you, but let’s not suggest that Souths’ form line blows Penrith to the status of outsiders for this one.
The Panthers have won 16 games in a row, defied the critics who said they’d fall over in the Finals and now find themselves 80 minutes from a season decider. That can be too easily forgotten when you watch the week two Finals games and focus on those fights for survival rather than those who have already arrived at the destination the others were trying to get to.
There’s plenty working in Penrith’s favour this weekend, but nothing more than the week off. Given no team has had a break since the competition resumed on May 28, the benefit of sitting back and taking a breath, as well as fixing up any niggling injuries, will be of monumental benefit to both Melbourne and the Panthers.
I don’t believe Penrith will leak in defence like the Roosters, Knights and Eels did against the Rabbitohs – it just wouldn’t line up with the team’s defensive performances all season, albeit the Roosters did rattle the cage in week one of the Finals.
The loss of Viliame Kikau is significant, but Kurt Capewell is a more than adequate replacement and brings plenty to the match in his own right.
Complacency won’t get the Panthers – they aren’t acting like a team that will fall into that trap – but experience at this level may. Souths have been here for the last two years, and some would suggest destiny is calling for them to go one step further.
Penrith will need to be as good if not better than they have been all season, and I think they will be – Ivan Cleary will have them prepared better than perhaps any other Finals team he’s coached. This is his time, and Penrith’s time.
Tip: Panthers by 8.
Penrith and Souths play in the Preliminary Final at ANZ Stadium on Saturday, October 17 at 7.50pm.
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.