Grand Final re-match offers preview of September footy

Sean O'Sullivan. Photo: NRL Images.
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There have been very few games in the last three seasons I’ve gone in to thinking the Panthers are facing an uphill battle.

And on that same token, there’s been very few games since 2020 where Penrith have been outsiders with the TAB.

But with injuries and suspensions weighing heavily, it would take a brave fan to go into this clash against one of the NRL’s most in-form teams with any type of confidence. Indeed, the TAB has the Panthers as $2.50 outsiders.

We always knew this period without Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary steering the ship would be difficult, but other curve balls like the suspension of James Fisher-Harris and an injury to Dylan Edwards have made the run even tougher.

It matters little in the big scheme of things, but nobody likes to lose. If nothing else, it’s at least building some character and coach Ivan Cleary’s aim at the moment would be ensuring no individual plays themselves out of form and confidence as a result of the scoreboard at the end of these games.

Penrith forward Isaah Yeo. Photo: NRL Images.

It doesn’t help that Penrith’s draw during this period is far from easy. After facing arch rivals Melbourne last Thursday, the Panthers now head to Accor Stadium to take on a Rabbitohs side that ate the Eels for breakfast last Friday and are clearly making some noise heading into the Finals. Just ask Latrell Mitchell.

If there has ever been a year for a team outside of the top four to reach the Grand Final it is this one, with both the Rabbitohs and Roosters making huge runs that could give things a shake come September.

Souths’ left-hand side with the likes of Cody Walker and Alex Johnston running riot certainly caused Parramatta plenty of headaches last Friday and there’s no doubt they’ll target Penrith’s right edge in this one. But it was through the middle where the Eels were most embarrassed and Cleary will be working hard to ensure the likes of Damien Cook are not given the same advantages come this game on Thursday night.

While the Panthers lacked the attacking prowess to trouble the Storm last Thursday night, the 16-0 scoreline was far from embarrassing and indeed there was some positives to come out of the result, not the least of which was the defensive work in the second half.

Penrith were actually on top at one point in the first half but the momentum shifted when Nick Meaney scored and that resulted in a 13 minute period of distraction that allowed the Storm to get up to their old tricks and build a lead they were never going to surrender.

Newcomer Sunia Turuva. Photo: NRL Images.

Outside of that period, the Panthers defended well and that will again be the aim on Thursday night. Tackle your heart out and don’t let the scoreboard get out of control.

Sean O’Sullivan had probably his worst game of the season against the Storm and he’ll be keen to make amends – a standout performance would not surprise me in the least.

And after being left in the garage for a week, Viliame Kikau barely got out of first gear last week so he’s another player you can expect a big game from.

The likely return of Dylan Edwards will also give Penrith a boost. His effort plays were sorely missed last week, even though Charlie Staines and later Stephen Crichton held their own at fullback. And in another boost, Liam Martin has been named despite hobbling off against the Storm.

I have to admit, I think Souths will probably get home here. Their current form, combined with Penrith’s woes, just points to another important notch on their belt. But this Penrith team still plays with plenty of heart and we saw against the Raiders just a fortnight ago that there’s still plenty of talent across the park to trouble any team on their day. Tough game, tough assignment – but you just never know what could happen in the 80 minutes.

Tip: Golden Point

Penrith and South Sydney play at Accor Stadium on Thursday, August 18 at 7.50pm.

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