Penrith’s clash against Melbourne a fortnight ago may have been the side’s biggest test of the season so far, but this Friday night’s encounter with Canberra at Panthers Stadium promises to be a close second.
The Raiders may not quite sit in the ‘elite four’ of Penrith, Melbourne, Souths and the Roosters as far as premiership credentials are concerned, but it’s not difficult to make an argument for Ricky Stuart’s side to be there when the whips are cracking at the business end of the season.
Canberra’s only loss this season came against the Warriors on a day where Stuart lost troops left, right and centre – and only Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s desperate hand robbed them of a miracle win on the buzzer in the nation’s capital.
But for me there is a stark difference between where Penrith and Canberra sit as footy teams and as premiership contenders this year.
At the Panthers, winning has become a habit. This side expects to win, and it shows in the incredible confidence they display week in, week out – led by an energetic playing group that is primarily made up of local products who did very little but win during their time in the club’s junior systems. There is a comfortability in watching Penrith these days – you just feel they’ll get the job done and like Melbourne, are unlikely to surrender a lead when they get it.
Canberra to me still look like a side that makes winning difficult. Against the Tigers in Round 1 they had to come from behind to eventually post a win, while their victories against Cronulla and Gold Coast were a lot harder than they needed to be. That loss to the Warriors – albeit with injury as an obvious excuse – came despite the side having a handy lead mid-way through the second half. There’s just something about Canberra you can’t trust – they make it hard for themselves, and it impacts their ability to really solidify where they sit in the competition.
As a team on paper, however, Canberra boast plenty of talent. The likes of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Jordan Rapana and Jack Wighton have the ability to create tries out of nothing, and combined with a strong forward pack it’s why the Raiders can often pile on points quickly, pouncing on momentum and strangling other sides of possession.
It’s that forward battle that really highlights this game on Friday night.
The likes of Josh Papalii and Ryan Sutton up against Moses Leota and James Fisher-Harris, and the enticing match-up of a returning Joseph Tapine and Isaah Yeo open this game up to be a real fight in the middle.
Any side’s game plan will focus on exposing a weakness in the opposition and while Penrith offer few hints to cracking their winning formula at present, the fact that 50 per cent of the Panthers’ spine is unavailable does open up some opportunities for Canberra.
Ivan Cleary has done well to patch the losses of Api Koroisau and Dylan Edwards for now, but Canberra will certainly be looking to expose those perceived weaknesses in Penrith’s armour, particularly when it comes to Stephen Crichton’s positional play at fullback.
I’m expecting a real tough tussle in the first half, but Penrith should be able to get the job done in the end – habits are bad to break.
Tip: Panthers by 8.
Penrith and Canberra play at BlueBet Stadium on Friday, April 9 at 7.55pm.
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.