‘There’s too many quality players in this competition for them to have to be picked.’
When the Penrith Panthers and St George Illawarra Dragons met in Round 12, it was being billed as a potential grand final preview.
Both sides had started the year strongly, with the Dragons sitting in first place for each of the first eleven rounds of the season, and the Panthers overcoming an off-season from hell to surge up to second on the ladder.
After the Panthers humbled the Dragons by 28-2, not only did they take their place at the top of the ladder, they also assumed premiership favouritism and all looked to be going well at the foot of the mountains.
Three months on, both sides have tumbled down the ladder in rather dramatic circumstances, with the Panthers losing their last two after sacking coach Anthony Griffin earlier this month, and the Dragons dropping six of their last eight matches to drop to sixth on the ladder.
On the doorstep to September, both sides will face tough pre-finals warm-ups away from home, with the Panthers running into a Melbourne Storm side that will just about Bradbury its way to another minor premiership. The Dragons heading up the highway to face the Newcastle Knights with their tail between their legs following a humiliating 38-0 defeat at the hands of the Bulldogs at home.
First to the match between the Storm and Panthers on Friday night, in which the mountain men will be hoping to put paid to a horror recent record against the Storm, having beaten them just once (in 2013) since they last saluted in the AFL capital, in round 15, 2005.
Damning statistics have revealed the Panthers have struggled to score against the Storm, having not scored more than 20 points in a match against them since that aforementioned meeting thirteen years ago, while they have conceded more than 20 points in nine of their last eleven matches against them, including the last five in a row.
Even with the return of James Maloney from a knee injury, it appears either record does not look like ending anytime soon, and so caretaker coach Cameron Ciraldo will have his work cut out preparing his side for what is without doubt the biggest acid test in the NRL, facing a Storm side that appears destined to claim back-to-back premierships.
Maloney’s absence proved to be very costly with the Panthers suffering a shock loss to the Knights at home before being embarrassed by the Warriors across the ditch last week.
It will be the fourth consecutive time the Panthers have met the Storm in Melbourne, but it will be their first meeting since April Fools’ Day last year, when the hosts prevailed by 28-6 in Round 5.
Meanwhile, it had been an emotionally tough week for the Dragons following the passing of club legend Lance Thompson last Friday. After coach Paul McGregor vowed that the side would perform in his honour, they did anything but, suffering their worst ever loss at Kogarah Oval, both pre and post-merger, in the process.
The defeat was soured by injuries to winger Jason Nightingale and centre Euan Aitken, with the pair joining captain Gareth Widdop and prop Paul Vaughan on the sidelines after they’d suffered shoulder and foot injuries respectively earlier this month.
Halfback Ben Hunt’s form continued to deteriorate following his Origin flop, a far cry from the man who we saw embarrass his old side, the Brisbane Broncos, when he scored an intercept try against the run of play all the way back in round one.
— NRL (@NRL) March 8, 2018
Just about the only positive for the Dragons came when their women’s side, to be captained by Sam Bremner with Kezie Apps serving as her deputy, mingled with fans including myself before being introduced to the crowd inside the ground pre-match.
They, along with the Brisbane Broncos, New Zealand Warriors and Sydney Roosters, will field teams in the inaugural NRL Women’s Premiership which will take place during the men’s finals series.
The draw will be determined by the structure of the men’s finals, so, for example, if the Broncos’ and Dragons’ men’s sides are drawn to meet in an elimination final at Suncorp Stadium, their women’s sides would meet in a curtain raiser at the same venue.
It is also looking likely that the Roosters and Warriors’ men’s teams will each host a match in the first round of the finals, so it could either come down to a coin toss as to who will “host” the women’s fixture between the same two sides, or priority would be given to the side that finishes higher on the ladder, in this case, the Roosters.
What will complicate things is that each of the four clubs will have their men’s sides feature in the finals as well.
Back on topic now, and another loss this Saturday could see the Dragons finish as low as eighth, which is where they finished in 2015 before suffering a heartbreaking golden point loss to the Bulldogs in the elimination final.
They will face a Knights side also coming off a huge loss, though they were far from disgraced in their 38-12 loss to the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, who replaced the Dragons in the top four and stayed there after the Red V’s aforementioned loss to the Bulldogs up the road.
The final home game of the Knights’ season is dubbed ‘Old Boys’ Day’, in which the club honours players retiring at season’s end, and while the club will not play finals for a fifth consecutive season, they can at least sabotage the Dragons’ pre-finals warm-up with a win in front of its home fans.
As for the Dragons, perhaps making the trip north and escaping the continual scrutiny from their media and the fans might be exactly what they need as they gear up for what will be just their second finals campaign since Wayne Bennett left the club at the end of the 2011 season.
Defeating the Knights in Newcastle would also be the perfect ending to the week from hell, in which their fans have also come under fire for turning against their finals-bound side, as well as a purported video showing a Dragons jersey being burnt appearing on social media recently.
But they’ll have to do it without captain Gareth Widdop, who isn’t due back from his shoulder injury suffered in round 22 against Parramatta until the first week of the finals.
And so, what was shaping as seasons of promise for both the Panthers and Dragons will instead see them continue to battle against the tide as they attempt to reverse their poor form leading into the finals.
Losses this weekend could see their chances of being the first two clubs to be eliminated from the finals, which begin next week, multiply.