When the 2023 draw was released in November last year, this Round 26 showdown between Penrith and Parramatta had blockbuster written all over it.
And while any clash between these western Sydney rivals is full of spite and high emotions, it doesn’t quite have as much counting on it as initially expected.
The Eels are now out of the Finals race, a mighty fall from grace after the euphoria of reaching the Grand Final last year. The Panthers meantime are racing towards the Minor Premiership after a big win over the Titans last weekend, which secured a home final at the very worst.
Parramatta have the bye in the final round of the competition which means this Thursday’s game is their last hurrah in 2023, and they’d like nothing better than to stick it to their cross-town rivals as the perfect farewell to an otherwise lacklustre season.
And while Penrith have been dominant against Parramatta when it’s mattered in recent years, the Eels are currently on a three game regular season winning streak against the defending Champions – including that thrilling win at CommBank Stadium earlier this year.
The Panthers came away from the Gold Coast last Saturday with a 40-14 win in their back pocket after what was a far from perfect performance, but one that never really looked like going the other way.
Penrith lacked some critical attention to detail, and there was an uncomfortable clumsiness about the attack at times, but you get the feeling Ivan Cleary’s side is simply cruising through these matches at present, as they wait for the business end of the year to arrive.
Cleary opted to rest a number of players with niggling injuries last weekend and he may do the same against the Eels, as it becomes more and more evident a mass rest – like what has happened in previous years – is unlikely in the final round, especially if there’s a Minor Premiership to be won.
We could well see some late changes to the side that was named on Tuesday, with the expectation that Dylan Edwards and perhaps James Fisher-Harris will take either this week or next week off.
Surprisingly, there is still no Izack Tago or Mitch Kenny in the line-up, their returns from injury put off for at least another week.
That means another week in the centres for Tyrone Peachey, while Jack Cogger gets another shot at hooker.
Whether we get a decent contest in this Round 26 clash comes down to what attitude Parramatta present with. Are they determined to end their season on a high, with equal parts frustration and determination after a difficult season, or have they essentially called time on their campaign; simply showing up to fulfil their obligations.
I predict a little of both: I have no doubt the Eels will turn up to play, but as the minutes tick on and the reality of the end of the year confronts them, I think the Panthers will begin to seriously get on top and make a little statement heading into the Finals.
I’m tipping a tight first half but the Panthers to really go on with it in the second. Western Sydney bragging rights will remain at the foot of the Mountains – where they belong.
Tip: Panthers by 16.
Penrith and Parramatta play at BlueBet Stadium on Thursday, August 24 at 7.50pm. 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.