Panthers and Cowboys in epic twilight showdown

Nathan Cleary in action against the Roosters. Photo: NRL Images.
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Go back to the pre-season and only the bravest of North Queensland fans would have had their side sitting in the top four approaching the mid-way point of the season, especially in the wake of their 2021 campaign.

At one stage the drums were even starting to beat around the future of coach Todd Payten, as the club struggled to recapture the form and consistency that it had just a few short years ago under previous coach Paul Green.

Now Payten has the Cowboys flying, coming into Friday night’s clash with Penrith with eight wins and sitting in third spot, fresh off dismantling Melbourne last Saturday night.

A few weeks ago Payten was asked on ‘NRL 360’ whether he thought his team was at the standard of Penrith and Melbourne, and he clearly was unwilling to say things were going that well – but if they manage to topple the Panthers on Friday night then Premiership aspirations will certainly start being talked about.

The Panthers went about their business at the SCG last Saturday night, with a devastating period close to half-time putting the game out of reach for the Roosters.

There is just so much to like about Penrith at the moment, and there’s a host of players – headed by Jarome Luai and Stephen Crichton – who are really starting to hit their straps in this middle part of the season.

Stephen Crichton races away to score for Penrith. Photo: NRL Images.

What comes now for Penrith is this difficult representative period, and you can bet that Ivan Cleary and his coaching staff have been preparing for these next few months since before a ball was kicked this season.

It’s not just about the game players will miss against Canterbury next Friday night, but moreso how Cleary manages backing up players, an upcoming bye and ensuring things stay on track for the run home at the back end of the season.

Working in Penrith’s favour is a four point lead at the top of the competition – Cleary doesn’t so much have to worry about dropping competition points at different times and can focus on the long goal, which is an excellent luxury to have.

But back to this game.

All of a sudden the 6pm Friday game becomes the match of the round, but it’s been robbed of a couple of superstars in the shape of Jason Taumalolo and Kyle Feldt, who both suffered knee injuries against the Storm last weekend.

Penrith meanwhile remain full strength for this one, and I’d again expect them to go up the middle against this Cowboys pack in an attempt to dominate field position and frustrate their opponent, much like they did against the Roosters last weekend.

The best part of Penrith’s game last week was their patience; they had to wait 29 minutes for their first try but it didn’t worry them and they didn’t panic.

I’m expecting an enthralling game of footy, and I don’t think the scoreline will blow out as much as it did against the Storm and Roosters over the last fortnight.

The Cowboys are playing with plenty of confidence and won’t be daunted by the task.

But this Penrith team is in-form, full of positivity and has Origin knocking on the door for so many of the playing group. They’ll get the job done, but the Cowboys will offer plenty of fight.

Tip: Panthers by 8.

Penrith and North Queensland play at BlueBet Stadium on Friday, May 27 at 6pm.

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