When you looked at the NRL draw late last year and saw a Panthers v Storm match scheduled for a Thursday night deep in the season, you stamped it as an immediate blockbuster.
And it still retains that status despite some significant outs for both teams, the latest being James Fisher-Harris’ suspension for Penrith and a shoulder problem for Storm halfback Jahrome Hughes.
Regardless of the players who take the park at BlueBet Stadium, the mission of both teams is what takes priority. Penrith are on the cusp of claiming their second Minor Premiership in three seasons, while the Storm are precariously placed on the ladder, sitting in fourth spot on for-and-against with the high flying Eels and Rabbitohs breathing down their neck.
The Panthers proved last week that the ‘next man up’ mentality, ironically a concept so often owned by the Storm over the years, is well and truly in force in 2022, with the side not missing a beat despite Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai and Viliame Kikau out against the Raiders.
The nine minute period before half-time in which the Panthers defended something like six sets on their line with just 12 men may just prove to be one of the key passages of play for Penrith’s entire season.
It’s the type of footage you show in the video room heading into a difficult end-of-season game, just to remind the troops what they’re capable of. I have no doubt Ivan Cleary will come back to it at some stage.
Time and time again we’re told defence wins Premierships, and the Panthers are on track to proving that right in 2022. They’ve conceded just 242 points this season, a remarkable feat given only one other team – North Queensland – sits below 300 points conceded.
Something else that wins Premierships is effort plays. Going that tiny step further than your opponent would. That little bat out to save a try, putting your body on the line to scoop up a grubber kick or turning around to make that last ditch tackle when all hope seemed lost.
And Penrith have a bunch of these effort players – with Dylan Edwards and Isaah Yeo at the front of the queue.
When you have players like Edwards and Yeo, and Nathan Cleary when he’s in the team, going that extra mile, it becomes infectious. It results in periods like that defensive performance just before half-time.
It’s hard to know what to expect in this Round 22 clash and most of the focus will likely be on the Storm, who certainly have the most to lose here. If they fall out of the top four it’s hard to see Craig Bellamy’s side forcing their way back in over the remaining handful of games, making this a potentially season defining game at the foot of the Mountains.
There is an obvious question mark around Penrith’s preparation for this game. A short turnaround combined with the Jaeman Salmon / Ricky Stuart saga, Fisher-Harris’ suspension and uncertainty over a couple of injured players hasn’t made it the smoothest week.
If the Storm can catch the Panthers out early and build a lead, an upset may just be on the cards.
I’m anticipating a tough forward battle early, with the Storm likely to try to go through the front door especially with Fisher-Harris missing and Nathan Cleary’s tenacious defence not present.
In the end, however, the Panthers should be able to wear them down, as long as the distractions of the week don’t take over.
Tip: Panthers by 8.
Penrith and Melbourne play at BlueBet Stadium on Thursday, August 11 at 7.55pm.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Breaking News Reporter. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations. In 2023, he was named Editor of the Year at the Mumbrella Publish Awards.