- You don’t win Grand Finals in March but you do get a pretty good idea of how your footy team has prepared over the off-season.
And while Penrith were a little rusty in their 24-0 win over the Cowboys in the opening round of the season last weekend, one word that was evident out of the 80 minutes was ‘energy’.
Ivan Cleary has the batteries charged on this team of youth, and they look fighting fit for the long campaign ahead.
Much like what we saw from this team last year during its incredible record-breaking winning streak, the Panthers always looked in control against the Cowboys – ensuring the blood pressure of the fans back in the stands remained stable.
The defence was a particular highlight, and keeping any team to zero – let alone in the first round – is something to celebrate.
This weekend Cleary’s men hit the M4 for a short road trip to Bankwest Stadium where they take on a Bulldogs side that will be looking to bounce back from last week’s opening round loss to Newcastle.
And after a few years of vanilla-like clashes between these two teams, there’s now some substance back into the rivalry, with Trent Barrett defecting from Penrith at the end of last season and the club luring talented youngster Matt Burton to Belmore from 2022 onwards. Tensions are rising even more now that the Dogs are desperate for Burton to be released early, a request the Panthers have continued to slam the door on.
So if you can tell in March how your footy team has prepared, how did the Bulldogs look?
The short answer is they looked marginally better than their second-last place finish in season 2020, but still appear to have a long way to go before they can be considered a serious Finals contender.
Their defence remains the biggest concern, especially against a team like Penrith that will continue to knock on the door whenever given the opportunity and consistently made teams pay for their mistakes last season.
The points should flow in this one, but first the Panthers must win the battle of the forwards. While Jack Hetherington will likely rip and tear for the Bulldogs against his former club, and Ofahiki Ogden offers plenty of aggression, Moses Leota and James Fisher-Harris should have their measure. So too should Apisai Koroisau against another former Panther in Sione Katoa, especially given Koroisau got plenty of rest last weekend, playing just 48 minutes.
And when it gets closer to the line, it’s just hard to see the Bulldogs stopping Penrith’s mouth-watering left-side attack, full of that word I noted earlier – energy. Seriously, forget drinking a Red Bull – just watch these guys go around and you’ll feel 10 years younger. Go right and Charlie Staines is waiting, it won’t be long before he gets back on the try scorer’s list.
Penrith will come into this one full of confidence, but far from cocky given last week’s performance wasn’t perfect. And while the side may have one eye on next week’s Grand Final re-match against Melbourne, there’s little doubt coach Cleary will have them focused on the job at hand – something he seemed to perfect during 2020, where distraction was replaced with drive and enthusiasm.
The team may not be cocky heading into this one, but I am – I honestly can’t see the Bulldogs competing.
Tip: Panthers by 44.
Penrith and Canterbury play at Bankwest Stadium on Saturday, March 20 at 3pm.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Senior Writer. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.