Finally the two best teams in Australia’s feeder competitions – the NSW Cup Champions, the Penrith Panthers and the Queensland Cup Champions, the Northern Pride, come together to do battle in the inaugural NRL State Championship on NRL grand final day.
The Panthers come into this game as overwhelming favourites, having won 23 of 27 games to claim the title in almost effortless fashion. They destroyed second-placed Newcastle 48-12 in the NSW Cup final and will need to win their ninth game in a row to secure this title.
Their opponents, the Northern Pride might be the outsiders but they have equally dominated the Queensland Cup, winning 22 and losing just 4 games. They have had just the one loss in their last 16 games to represent a real challenge to the Panthers.
They were ultra-impressive in disposing of the Easts Tigers 36-4 last Sunday to claim their second Queensland Cup title in four years and their first since 2010.
Tale Of The Tape
The Panthers, in winning the minor premiership, set a new record in the NSW Cup with their 20 wins and 4 losses record. For the Northern Pride, it was the fourth all-time best performance in the competition.
Their coach Jason Demetriou, despite having only coached at this level for just two years, has the best record of any coach in this competition to date, having won 39 of 50 games to date for a 78 per cent winning record. Garth Brennan has an equivalent record of 30 wins 12 losses in NSW Cup.
Penrith will field ex Northern Pride halfback Tom Humble, who having played for the Pride back in 2009, ironically is rumoured to be heading back to North Queensland in 2015.
Panthers: In: Ben Murdoch-Masila
Out: Isaah Yeo (injury)
Coach Garth Brennan has resisted the call bring in Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Will Smith and Matt Robinson – who have all qualified to play in this game. Instead, Brennan is sticking solid with the side that did the job so convincingly against Newcastle, albeit with just the one enforced change with Isaah Yeo (ankle) replaced by Ben Murdoch-Masila.
Despite rumours to the contrary, Tim Grant will not make a surprise return from injury (knee) to make a farewell appearance before heading Souths next season. Tom Humble who was placed on report was not charged and will take his place in the team.
Garth Brennan has named a 17-man squad that has 10 players with 614 games of NRL experience, headed by Kevin Kingston who will retire after this game to take up a coaching role with the Panthers Holden Cup squad.
This will represent the last time an all Fijian three-quarter backline will line up for the Penrith Panthers with the departures of Wes Naiqama (London Broncos) and Kevin Naiqama (Wests Tigers) while Eto Nabuli remains unsigned for next year despite scoring 48 tries at this level on just two years.
This also represents the final game for Tom Humble and Luke Capewell (both rumoured to be heading back to Queensland) while Vaipuna Tia Kilifi and Nathan Smith remain unsigned for next year.
Five Queenslanders – Luke Capewell, Tom Humble, Kevin Kingston, Ryan Simpkins andamp; Kierran Moseley will line-up against the best team from their home state.
The team is as follows:
1. Kieran Moss 2. Eto Nabuli 3. Kevin Naiqama 4. Waqa Blake 5. Wes Naiqama 6. Luke Capewell 7. Tom Humble 8. Sam Anderson 9. Kevin Kingston 10. Reagan Campbell-gillard 11. Ben Murdoch-Masila 12. Nathan Smith 13. Ryan Simpkins
Interchange: 14. Vaipuna Tia-kilifi 15. Kierran Moseley
16. Leilani Latu 17. Andy Saunders
Coach: Garth Brennan
In – Jack Svendsen Patrick Kaufusi
Out – Kyle Feldt (personal reasons), Joel Reithmuller (suspended)
Coach Jason Demetriou has had two major setbacks coming into this game with Joel Reithmuller suspended and Kyle Feldt becoming unavailable for personal reasons. Despite the setbacks, Demetriou has named a side that has a vastly more settled look about it and has seven players with 95 games of NRL experience – including Ricky Thorby, Ethan Lowe and Brett Anderson.
The side does include the likes of Tyrone McCarthy, Sam Obst and Semi Tadulala, who all have extensive English Super League experience. Plenty of up and comers have been named in this squad, including the likes of Javid Bowen, Blake Leary, Davin Crampton, Shaun Nona and Ben Spina who all played for the Queensland Residents side.
The team is as follows:
1. Hezron Murgha 2. Javid Bowen 3. Brett Anderson
16. Davin Crampton 5. Semi Tadulala 6. Shaun Nona 7. Sam Obst
8. Ricky Thorby 9. Jason Roos 10. Ethan Lowe 11. Blake Leary
12. Tyrone McCarthy 13. Ben Spina
Interchange: 14. Ryan Ghietti 15. Sheldon Powe-Hobbs
17. Jack Svendsen 18. Tom Hancock (one to omit)
Coach: Jason Demetriou
Given it’s the first game of its hype, much will come down to two things – who has recovered the quicker from their post-grand final celebrations and who will handle what is expected to be another 30 plus degree game day which could very well bring back the boys from Cairns right into contention.
The Panthers are the better attacking side, averaging 32 points per game compared to the Pride’s 28 points per game on the back of a backline that has scored 93 tries between them, including Eto Nabuli (19), Kevin Naiqama (16), Kieran Moss (15), Waqa Blake (13), Tom Humble (12).
While the Panthers largely rely on their speedy backline, the Northern Pride can score from all over the park. Northern Pride’s ‘Mr Fix It’ – Davin Crampton leads the way with 17 tries while Javid Bowen andamp; surprise packet Blake Leary are next with 12 tries each. Their potency seems to be in the back row with the starting back three clocking up 27 tries between them.
Defensively, the Northern Pride have the better record having conceded just 16 points to Penrith’s 17 points. The Panthers since their loss to Newtown having conceded just 80 points in their eight game winning streak that culminated with the NSW Cup victory but will need to rise to another level given the Pride’s superior record in defence.
The key factor could well be the heat andamp; who respects possession the most in the expected warm conditions come Sunday, as defence will be likely more frequently than usual. As with all Queensland sporting teams, they love an underdog especially one coming down for the NRL grand final andamp; this team fits the bill perfectly.
As far as the outcome of this game goes, the bookies have Northern Pride as rank outsiders paying anywhere up to $4.90 and offering a 13.5 start at $1.90.
The Panthers should have the class in the air to win this encounter but the Northern Pride you sense are a side that won’t go away.
In fact they have won 8 from 11 games by a margin of six points or less while the Panthers have won five of eight games and margin of around 6-10 points is a likely winning margin in what should be a high scoring game.
Panthers by 8.