How Panthers went from manufactured rivalry to legitimate derby

A dejected Penrith went down to Melbourne 8-0 last weekend. Photo: NRL Photos.
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For many years, this whole Penrith v Parramatta rivalry was nothing more than a bit of manufactured hype.

After all, there had been no legitimate competition between the two sides for decades.

The Panthers were struggling in the early 1980s when the Eels won three straight Premierships, and by the time Penrith’s rise would come a few years later, the golden era of Parramatta was coming to an end.

When Penrith won the comp in 2003, the Eels finished ninth in the regular season. A year later, when Penrith made the Preliminary Final, Parramatta were nowhere near the eight.

When the Eels made their Grand Final run in 2009, the Panthers finished 11th.

You get the picture.

It is only now that this is a legitimate rivalry. A nail-biting Semi Final a couple of years ago, the Grand Final in 2022. And some of the most pulsating regular season games you could imagine.

Now we find ourselves heading to BlueBet Stadium on Friday night for a battle of the west that has been building all week; and will almost certainly be played in front of a sellout crowd.

I would take little out of the Round 1 form of either club, except to say that Penrith’s stoic Premiership-winning defence held well against Melbourne and I have little concerns that the Panthers will get things right as the season progresses.

Penrith’s defence held strong against the Storm. Photo: NRL Photos.

The Eels were too good for Canterbury but the Bulldogs aren’t expected to do much this year, so it’s hard to get a gauge on exactly how Brad Arthur’s men are travelling.

What cannot be denied is Parramatta’s excellent regular season record against Penrith in recent times. The Eels got the job done twice last year, and twice in 2022.

But we all know that when it has mattered most – in the 2021 Finals and the 2022 Grand Final – Penrith has got the job done.

There’s a lot of factors coming into this game, including the battle of the halfbacks in Nathan Cleary and Mitch Moses. Moses, who has shrugged off a groin injury and will play on Friday, is keen to stamp his authority on the competition this year. To do so, he must beat the best – enter Cleary.

Mitch Moses in action against Canterbury. Photo: NRL Photos.

With the New South Wales Origin jumper also up for grabs this year under new coach Michael Maguire, both will be keen to impress in what will be a high class battle.

A significant factor in this game is the return of Mitch Kenny. The man in the number nine jumper has a big say in the speed of a set and the flow of the game, and things looked a little clumsy around the ruck without Kenny last weekend.

Penrith has also been bolstered by Scott Sorensen’s return in the second row.

There’s no question the Eels have plenty to offer this season and would be buoyed by their win last weekend, but the Panthers are a professional outfit who would be keen to respond to a last-start loss.

I’m expecting a close game, and an exciting chapter in what is now a legitimate local derby, but the Panthers should be able to do enough to pull away in the second half.

Tip: Panthers by 10.

Penrith and Parramatta play at BlueBet Stadium in Penrith on Friday, March 15 at 8pm.

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