For some four months now I’ve been unwilling to say it, but as we guide our way towards the business end of the season it’s safe to say that a Premiership threepeat is well and truly within reach for the Penrith Panthers.
After 15 rounds, Ivan Cleary’s side sits on top of the competition with a defensive record far superior than any other side in the competition.
And with suggested title contenders like the Roosters, Cowboys, Sharks and Eels far from impressive or consistent this season, you have to put the Panthers right up there as a true chance of winning a third straight title – something that league fans haven’t witnessed for some 40 years.
But before any of that, a new challenge: A seriously Origin-impacted clash with North Queensland in Townsville on Friday night.
10 players, plus Nathan Cleary, are missing from what could have been a Friday night blockbuster. Regardless, there’s still plenty of storylines attached to this clash and still two competition points up for grabs.
The Cowboys probably weren’t expecting to be without so many Origin stars (Reuben Cotter, Valentine Holmes, Murray Taulagi, Jeremiah Nanai and Reece Robson) but they’ve been given a boost with the return of co-captain Jason Taumalolo, who has been out with a knee injury since Round 7.
That probably gives the Cowboys the slight edge against a Penrith team without their game manager in Cleary, the talents of Jarome Luai, the strike of Brian To’o and Stephen Crichton and the toughness of Isaah Yeo, who has been seriously good this season.
But there’s still plenty to like about the Penrith team – Dylan Edwards is in sensational form, while Moses Leota and James Fisher-Harris make up a ferocious front row.
The halves is the obvious issue – Jaeman Salmon and Jack Cogger have never partnered before and there’s probably a lack of creativity there that could cost the Panthers. Also lost in the big win over the Roosters last weekend was Penrith’s poor last tackle options on too many occasions, and there’s no doubt either Salmon or Cogger will need to take the game by the scruff of the neck and sort that out on Friday.
The Cowboys are in the fortunate position of being able to name a strong halves pairing in Tom Dearden and Chad Townsend, who may just have a little too much spark compared to Penrith’s back-up pairing.
The Panthers offer a stronger bench though and as long as the game doesn’t blow out early, the inclusion of Spencer Leniu at some point in the first half could prove a huge momentum shifter and break the match open.
In what is probably the most difficult round to tip this season, this week 16 opener is perhaps the toughest of the lot. You have to consider the home ground advantage for the Cowboys, and the fact they’ve come off a bye and will be well prepared for the task at hand. They’d also know there’s no better chance to get a shot at the defending Premiers than when they’re down on troops.
But Penrith’s next man up mentality continues to be a highlight of this current era of success, and you can’t deny the hunger that the fill-in players will have to make their own mark on this season. There is something to be said for holding down the fort, and the responsibility that brings.
Flip a coin, because I’ve really got no idea how this one unfolds – but I can find enough reasons to tip the visitors in a tight one.
Tip: Panthers by 2.
The Panthers and Cowboys play at QLD Country Bank Stadium on Friday, June 16 at 8pm. The match is live on Fox Sports and Channel 9.
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.