The Finals have arrived and it feels like Penrith have been waiting weeks, if not months, for this Saturday afternoon at 4.05pm to arrive.
When you’ve been as consistent as the Panthers have been over the past four seasons – winning three Minor Premierships and finishing second in the other year – the lull of the middle part of the season becomes obvious.
It explains why Penrith only cracked the half century once this season, despite looking likely to do so on countless occasions during the year. In the simplest terms, the side just did what they needed to do each week.
A new competition begins this weekend, however, and the Panthers play a Warriors side that surprised many this year under new coach Andrew Webster, who ironically has played a crucial role in Penrith’s era of success.
We know where the Panthers are at heading into this one. They came up against a Cowboys side with everything to play for last weekend and totally dismantled them, claiming the Minor Premiership in the process.
In contrast, we don’t quite know what to make of the Warriors. Sure, they’ve managed to finish in the top four – but they haven’t played a top eight side since way back in the depths of winter when they toppled Canberra 21-20 in Auckland. Whether or not they’re a little underdone for the Finals is a big question mark heading into this one.
What can’t be denied is that the Warriors boast plenty of talent across the park.
Shaun Johnson – at risk of being sent off to a retirement home this time last year – finds himself in vintage form, leading the competition in try assists this year and playing with an infectious enthusiasm.
There’s Addin Fonua-Blake leading the comp in post-contact metres, and second in all run metres – behind only Penrith’s Dylan Edwards.
And former Panther Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, who has reached cult figure status at the Warriors and like Johnson, has turned back the clock this year.
But it’s very difficult to go past a Penrith side that leads the competition in almost every statistic – from completion rates to line engagement, possession and run metres. It has been a dominant regular season.
I see the Panthers winning this one in the first 20 or 25 minutes – similar to the way they took control of the game against the Cowboys last weekend. I just can’t see the side not being up for this one, and there’s no question Penrith’s form in Home Finals is superb. The Warriors may take a little bit of time to warm into the game and by the time they find their rhythm, it may be too late.
The Panthers just don’t give you time to breathe. There’s very few ‘settlers’ – they make every play count, and it can drain the opposition.
The absence of Jarome Luai is obviously a huge factor in this match, but Penrith’s spine is strengthened by the long-awaited return of Mitch Kenny, who will certainly be refreshed after a stint on the sideline with injury.
Scott Sorensen is also back in the team after a period on the sidelines.
I’m expecting big opening stanzas from James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota, and I expect Nathan Cleary to take plenty of ownership over the result, and the entire Finals series.
I think this one may get away from the Warriors in the end, though I do expect it to be a high scoring affair – especially given the afternoon timeslot.
Tip: Panthers by 12.
The Panthers and Warriors play at BlueBet Stadium on Saturday, September 9 at 4.05pm
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.