Panthers on fire, but Raiders coming home hot

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    Nathan Cleary of the Panthers looks set to be the comp's leading point-scorer in 2017. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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    With three games left to play in the NRL regular season and just six points separating the sides between fourth and tenth, the run into the finals is smothered in scenario-riddled matches.

    Perhaps none more so than the matchup between the Canberra Raiders and Penrith Panthers this Sunday at GIO Stadium.

    Penrith have notched half-dozen straight victories and are flying high again but, even more intriguingly, Canberra, who appeared destined to be 2017’s biggest flops, have found a glimmer of life again on the back of three-straight wins.

    Both teams enjoyed stellar, breakout years in 2016, which led to the league world’s cumulative preseason prediction that they would challenge for this season’s title.

    However, for different reasons, neither side has kicked on from last season’s red-hot form.

    Penrith began this season with just two wins from the opening nine rounds. By anyone’s assessment, it was a disaster given how they had captured our attention just six months earlier.

    The start might have been a shock, but their next four wins in the middle of the season would prove to be crucial. Essential, even.

    They spent five games away from Pepper Stadium during that period and after losing two on the trot to the Cowboys and South Sydney, they returned to their spiritual home and haven’t lost a game since.

    Six games, six wins. Five at Pepper Stadium.

    They have the undisputed sensation of the season Nathan Cleary playing well beyond his years and in calculations for a representative call-up, and now their key stalwart Matt Moylan has returned from injury.

    Under the guidance of Anthony Griffin, the play-making tutelage of club legend Greg Alexander and the behind the scenes advice of Phil Gould, Penrith could really give this competition a tilt if everything continues to fall into place like it has been.

    While Penrith’s showing for the majority of this season has been mixed for a number of reasons, Canberra just haven’t clicked as they did in 2016.

    They lost only Paul Vaughan and Edrick Lee in the offseason and kept virtually their entire line-up intact. They unearthed a potential franchise weapon in 18-year-old Nick Cotric and, in somewhat of a surprise, handed Dave Taylor a train-and-trial contract.

    Trying to work out where they’ve gone wrong this season is a tricky exercise, but identifying what went well for them in 2016 is an easy task.

    The Raiders played a formidable and fear-invoking style of footy which allowed their attacking brilliance to shine as they won 13 of their last 15 games.

    Comradery among the squad in the isolated nation’s capital under Ricky Stuart brought them together and momentum took them to within a dropped pass of the grand final.

    Every team they faced was weary of playing the rebuilt Green Machine.

    Even Paul Gallen was in tears of joy after the Sharks got out of GIO Stadium with a qualifying final win.

    Perhaps the most endearing compliment of Canberra was that only their own error prevented them from knocking off Melbourne in the preliminary final at the ‘graveyard’ of AAMI Park.

    It’s why, should they win on Sunday afternoon, they must be considered a danger to any team that encounters them on their run to the finals series. That includes the Storm at AAMI Park in the final round of the season.

    They might have left their run very, very late, but make no mistake, Canberra are coming home hot.

    If they can build the confidence and find the spark that inspired their run last season, the Raiders are capable of beating anyone on their day.

    What a tantalising prospect the 2017 NRL Finals could be if the Green Machine make the cut.

    It would only be a scrape-in eighth place finish, but goodness scarious, look out whoever runs fifth.
    And for the Panthers, who knows what awaits for them.

    A club still in a development phase, but well capable of going all the way should they play to their potential.

    In last year’s semi-final, Penrith went to Canberra and failed to match the Raiders, going down 22-12.

    That match put them out of the finals series and they will be eager to revenge the loss in this Sunday’s blockbuster clash.