At the half-way point of the season it is hard to imagine even Penrith coach Ivan Cleary, or the most hardened of Panthers supporters, could have predicted the ladder would look quite like this.
A Panthers team sitting four points clear at the top of the league heading to Origin, with just one loss and a clean bill of health. It’s been an extraordinary season. If only September was next week.
This Friday night presents a wonderful challenge for Penrith to test its depth against Canterbury, with six premium first graders out due to State of Origin commitments, including both halves.
This is indeed a good thing – depth will be needed in the second half of the season, and Penrith’s position at this stage of the year gives Cleary the freedom and relaxation to guide the side through this representative period with patience, versus concern over losing their place in the all-important top four.
Penrith’s depth fell short last Origin campaign, but you get the feeling things will be different this time. The side appears more settled, and a number of players – like Sean O’Sullivan – have already been blooded this season, preparing them for this period of the year.
Traditionally this game may have been considered a bit of a non-event, with so many stars out and the Bulldogs sitting last on the competition ladder. However it’s anything but, particularly given Penrith’s newfound rivalry with the Dogs – mainly surrounding player movements.
There’s no doubt Matt Burton will be keen to have a big game against his former club, to prove – even to himself – that he made the right call in switching camps.
As much as the players who are out will make this a closer game than it ordinarily would have been, I still believe the Panthers will win comfortably.
Half the spine is still there in Dylan Edwards and Api Koroisau, while the starting front row of Moses Leota and James Fisher-Harris remains. It’ll be up to them to lay the platform so the likes of Sean O’Sullivan and Kurt Falls can show what they’ve got close to the line.
There is no doubt that the Bulldogs have patches of good football in them. They scored three tries in the space of 12 minutes against the Dragons last weekend – problem is they’d already conceded three in the space of six.
Should Canterbury get a roll-on at some stage on Friday night, there’s no doubt Penrith could enter panic mode without the likes of Nathan Cleary and Isaah Yeo there to calm the situation and manage the side out of the hole.
But I suspect Penrith, now with a ‘next man up’ mentality made famous by Melbourne, will likely lead this one and be able to control proceedings for most of the evening.
No matter what happens this first versus last encounter certainly offers a more interesting affair than we may have usually expected – and I’m looking forward to it.
It might not be the highest quality game of the season, but it’ll certainly offer plenty of talking points.
Penrith will get home here.
Tip: Panthers by 14.
Penrith and Canterbury play at BlueBet Stadium on Friday, June 3 from 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.