I’m not sure Penrith has faced a bigger regular season danger game in the last few seasons than this one.
Ivan Cleary’s side comes up against a Parramatta team that still hasn’t won this season, with the desperation to grab two competition points matched only by a desire to get one back on their western Sydney rivals after last year’s Grand Final.
Penrith sit inside the top eight going into this clash but it’s safe to say it’s been a sluggish start to the season, with a first-up loss to Brisbane and a better, albeit far from convincing, performance against Souths.
In the end the Round 3 bye, which originally appeared to be a curse more than a blessing, could work out perfectly for the Panthers. An early season camp to brush away the cobwebs was perhaps exactly what Cleary’s side needed, especially given both Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai picked up some niggling injuries against the Rabbitohs.
Parramatta may be none from three to start the season, but they’ve been in every game up to their necks. A Golden Point loss to the Storm in Round 1, a four point loss to the Sharks in the second round and another four point loss to Manly in frantic circumstances last Thursday night.
The way the rugby league Gods work, you’d think the Eels would have to win eventually. Hence, danger game.
But Parramatta will have to overcome two significant factors to upset the Panthers.
The first is the season’s defensive records so far. The Eels have conceded more points than any other team so far this season, while the Panthers have conceded the least (albeit with a bye also in the mix). Regardless of how Penrith may have started the season, their ability to only concede two tries a game remains well intact.
The other is that Penrith have simply owned Parramatta in big games over the years. The Eels were crowing about their two regular season victories over the Panthers last year but when it really mattered, Penrith rose to the occasion and dominated the Eels in both the Finals and Grand Final.
The 2021 Finals, Nathan Hindmarsh’s 300th… the occasions roll on, and Penrith has spoilt many of them for Parramatta.
Still, there’s something about beaten Grand Finalists wanting to topple the team that stole their dream the year before. It means nothing but two competition points in the end, but there’s a bit of pride on the line and I’ve got little doubt the Eels would have had this one circled in the calendar for some time.
The Eels welcome back Ryan Matterson for this clash, while the Panthers add Scott Sorensen to the line-up after he missed the Rabbitohs game under concussion protocols.
I’m expecting a tight first half, but over the course of 80 minutes, the Eels’ anger over last year’s Grand Final result, the comments made afterwards and the general dislike for their now big brother will start to dissipate and the quality will rise to the surface. As long as Penrith withstand the early hits, they’ll do enough in the second half to win this one.
Tip: Panthers by 6.
Penrith and Parramatta play at CommBank Stadium on Thursday, March 23 at 8pm. The game is live on Channel 9 and Fox League.
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.