Plenty on the line – possibly – as Panthers prepare for Cowboys showdown

Stephen Crichton in action against the Eels last week. Photo: NRL Images.
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“Something would have to go horribly wrong for Penrith not to win their third straight Grand Final.”

That has been the collective thought of the rugby league world for most of the season, until that ‘something’ happened last Thursday night against Parramatta.

The shoulder injury to Jarome Luai is one thing. That’s a significant blow that will weaken Penrith’s left side attack significantly; and plenty of work will need to be put in across a relatively short period of time to even partly cover for it.

Concerning too was the way Penrith lost. It was an uncharacteristic performance, an outlier when you look at the club’s consistency over the past four seasons.

The Panthers were again rattled by a team willing to throw the ball around and that could be problematic in the Finals. But let’s put the loss to one side. After all, it’s probably extremely difficult to remain ‘up’ and motivated to win every week when you’ve known for some time that a top four finish was secured.

Nathan Cleary. Photo: NRL Images.

This Penrith team has been waiting for the Finals for some time – and a performance like last Thursday was probably always coming. Even coach Ivan Cleary didn’t seem overly surprised by it.

The sub-plots to this Saturday’s game against North Queensland are intriguing and it’s difficult to know exactly what kind of game we’re going to get – or what each side will be playing for.

Will the Panthers still be in the fight for a Minor Premiership? If so, does Ivan Cleary go all-out and field the strongest side possible, to claim that piece of rugby league bragging rights? If not, and if Penrith’s ladder position can’t change, does he opt to rest a few players?

Will things go North Queensland’s way on Friday night when the Roosters play the Rabbitohs, opening the door for a ‘win and you’re in’ scenario? Or will they be playing for nothing come 5.30pm Saturday?

No team goes out to lose but the scenarios do play a factor here – and it could ultimately determine the speed and ferocity of the game, and certainly the end scoreline.

Dylan Edwards bags a try. Photo: NRL Images.

The Cowboys were pretty impressive against the Dolphins last Friday night and they’d be keen to carry that form into Saturday’s game against Penrith. The problem with North Queensland this year is that they seem to drift in and out of games and only play their best football in patches; that doesn’t provide any confidence week-to-week.

Penrith won’t play as bad as they did last Thursday night but they will have to get the Nathan Cleary and Jack Cogger combination humming, which is why I think there’ll be no chance Cleary will be rested. That combination didn’t win anyone over when Luai missed the Manly game a few weeks ago and you can be assured it’s been a huge focus at training this week.

Penrith rarely lose two games in a row, and they rarely put in two consecutive bad performances.

No matter what is on the line, I can’t see the Panthers dropping this one – unless a late call is made to rest a host of stars. Regardless, I expect it to be reasonably close but Penrith to always be in control. One of those ‘never really looked like losing’ nights.

Tip: Panthers by 7.

Penrith and North Queensland play at BlueBet Stadium on Saturday, September 2 at 5.30pm. The game is live on Fox Sports and Kayo.

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