The final round of the regular season is upon us, but let’s just call it week zero of the Finals.
There is so much on the line this Friday night at Cbus Super Stadium that it’s fair to say the playoffs have arrived a week early.
The entrée is the 6pm clash between Melbourne and Cronulla – the Storm looking to wrap up the Minor Premiership, the Sharks hoping to secure their Finals spot.
For main course, a Battle of the West with epic consequences. Penrith may well be playing for top spot and their second consecutive J.J. Giltinan Shield. The Eels will be playing for a hopeful top four finish.
Only Ivan Cleary was honest last weekend when it came to summing up the final round.
Eels coach Brad Arthur seemed unconcerned about the top four, despite the fact we know it’s nearly impossible to win the premiership from the bottom half of the eight. He doubled down on Tuesday when he confirmed he’d rest a host of players from this match, including Clint Gutherson and Mitch Moses.
Storm leader Craig Bellamy all but brushed aside talk of the Minor Premiership, but we know a loss would mean two defeats on the trot heading into the Finals, and no team wants that.
Bellamy too will rest players, leaving the door ajar for Penrith to grab top spot; something that seemed almost impossible a couple of weeks ago.
Cleary openly said the Minor Premiership would be a great achievement, given it shows which club has been the most consistent throughout the season. He seems the hungriest of the lot and has named a full strength side.
Last Sunday’s performance against the Wests Tigers suggests Penrith’s top squad do need another game together before the Finals. It was at times error-riddled, and while coach Cleary says there’s still a few gears to go in his team, they didn’t seem to get out of neutral.
That said, you never really got the feeling Penrith were in any trouble. They always seemed in control and never panicked even when things weren’t going their way in the first half.
But it’s safe to say that if there’s one thing Penrith do need to fix heading into the season’s biggest games, it’s their starts. The Panthers haven’t led a game at the 20th minute mark in more than a month, either falling behind early or allowing their opposition to grab a try back if they do manage to open the scoring.
As we saw in last year’s Grand Final, games against the good sides can get away very quickly and Penrith won’t be given the luxury of only playing 50 or 60 minutes of good football when we get down to business next weekend.
The Eels would have taken enormous confidence out of last week’s win against Melbourne, but such a physical encounter would have taken its toll.
I certainly expect this to be a high quality game of football regardless of who is and isn’t in the final teams, but for me the Panthers just have too much class across the park.
Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary up against Will Smith and Jake Arthur? Viliame Kikau, Kurt Capewell and Isaah Yeo facing off against Bryce Cartwright, Keegan Hipgrave and Ray Stone?
The comparisons go on. Penrith simply look better right across the park.
Tip: Panthers by 18.
Penrith and Parramatta play at Cbus Super Stadium on Friday, September 3 at 8.05pm.
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.