So you’re cruising along the highway, playing your favourite tunes with only the faint sight of headlights in the rear view mirror. As the sun begins to set on the long journey, it’s almost too perfect.
Then you hit a pothole, the stereo stops working, the headlights get closer and an afternoon storm wipes out the sunset.
Penrith’s near-perfect 2022 season suffered a brutal blow last Friday night when Nathan Cleary was sent off for a dangerous throw on Parramatta’s Dylan Brown, a tackle that eventually saw him outed for five weeks.
He, along with halves partner Jarome Luai (knee injury), won’t be back before the Finals.
The good news is that Penrith’s Premiership defence remains in solid shape, with Luai and Cleary to be fresh when the second weekend of September rolls around.
The bad news is that the shape of Penrith’s run home has now changed completely. It’s not so much about the Minor Premiership – I still have little doubt the Panthers will claim the J.J Giltinan Shield – but moreso the mental impact of this period.
If the Panthers do drop several games on the trot, what does it do to the players who are out on the field, giving their all each week? Does it dent their confidence significantly, or take more petrol out of the tank than originally planned?
What bad habits are potentially learned in the next five weeks, that get carried into the Finals?
What Ivan Cleary had in his mud map for this final five weeks has now changed dramatically. It is a challenge but not an insurmountable one and certainly one without fatal consequences.
In many ways, it’s added some excitement to the run home. Jaeman Salmon (or perhaps Kurt Falls, let’s see) and Sean O’Sullivan are now handed the keys and will surely relish the opportunity to lead this side around.
O’Sullivan worked his backside off last Friday night, and I have no doubt he’ll be the orchestra leader over the next five weeks.
Mission one is this road trip to what will be a chilly nation’s capital on Saturday evening.
There’s plenty on the line for Canberra, who sit in ninth spot on percentages heading into this one and are desperate to fight their way into the top eight. Claiming the first placed Panthers as a scalp would be an enormous step towards that happening for Ricky Stuart’s men.
The Raiders never really looked troubled against the Titans last weekend but their inability to completely put Justin Holbrook’s side away would surely cause Stuart some concerns.
The danger man here is certainly Joseph Tapine, who’s having a strong season for the green machine and leads the competition in post contact metres by some distance. He’s also second in offloads and sits in the top three for run metres.
The Panthers need to fix up their discipline in this one; without Cleary there to manage the contest, there’s a risk it could get away from them.
Certainly it was ill-discipline that allowed the Eels back into the game after Penrith had the early ascendency last week.
I’m not expecting an easy contest here and it’ll probably take a couple of weeks for the halves to settle in, but I do think Penrith remain a solid chance of winning. They still have their best 1-5 and best 8-13 on the field, and at this time of the year, that certainly means something.
Tip: Panthers by 4.
The Panthers and Raiders play at GIO Stadium on Saturday, August 6 from 5.35pm.
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.