Finals come early as Panthers and Bunnies do battle at Suncorp

Stephen Crichton in action against the Dragons. Photo: NRL Photos.
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The Finals come early this Friday night when Penrith and Souths do battle in what is shaping up as one of the most anticipated games of the season.

The Panthers and Rabbitohs will almost certainly do battle in the opening weekend of the Finals, so to get a match-up like this so close to the playoffs is mouth-watering indeed.

Both sides have come a long way since Penrith belted Benny’s Bunnies 56-12 in Dubbo back in Round 11.

The Panthers would go on to beat the Bulldogs the following weekend before a difficult period that saw them lose to the Tigers and Sharks as the drama of the Origin period took hold.

It’s safe to say Ivan Cleary’s side has only just recovered from the mid-season representative roller coaster but last week’s win over St George-Illawarra provided plenty of confidence that things are now back on track.

As for Souths, they bounced back from that heavy defeat to Penrith to beat the Eels the following weekend and kick-off what has become a 10 match winning streak.

Both sides can argue the numbers are in their favour.

Jarome Luai. Photo: NRL Photos.

Souths has scored 30 points in eight straight matches, with their left side attack in particular simply electrifying over the past two months.

Penrith has conceded less than 20 points an incredible 19 times this season – the last time they achieved such a feat was way back in the 1991 Premiership year.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find the two games where more than 20 points were conceded were against the Tigers and Storm – matches where Penrith’s line-up was significantly depleted.

So the question is – can Penrith’s rock-solid defence hold out the rampaging Rabbitohs? Or conversely, can Souths crack the brick wall that Ivan Cleary has built this season?

Every Panthers supporter would have breathed a sigh of relief last weekend when Nathan Cleary ran out onto Suncorp Stadium. Almost instantly Penrith looked a better team; much more organised in both attack and defence and up a level or two in energy. Cleary has awoken the side from its siesta, and it’ll only be better in coming weeks as more and more troops return.

Nathan Cleary returned last weekend. Photo: NRL Photos.

Cleary’s battle with Adam Reynolds will be something special this weekend – both have been in terrific form this season and both will have a significant say in how this match plays out.

But it could well be the battle of the other halves – Jarome Luai and Cody Walker – that helps decide this one. Walker has been in red hot form and may just be a quiet Dally M hope, while Luai was brilliant in the first half of the season but has been a little quiet since the Origin period.

A clash like this may well revive his form, however.

And then there’s he battle of the fullbacks. Sure, Latrell Mitchell is a force to be reckoned with and probably has Dylan Edwards’ measure, but the latter showed against the Dragons last weekend that he has plenty of heart and fight and he has an opportunity here to prove he can match it with the game’s elite.

For me two things swing me Penrith’s way – the return of Api Koroisau at hooker, and the likely inclusion of Tevita Pangai Junior as an X-factor.

Brent Naden grabbed a double against the Dragons. Photo: NRL Photos.

In addition, I’m not totally convinced about Souths’ form line. They’ve had a somewhat soft draw over the past two months.

This will be one hell of a battle. Strap yourself in.

Tip: Panthers by 4.

Penrith and Souths play at Suncorp Stadium on Friday, August 20 at 8.05pm. 

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