Last season the Panthers went on a long winning streak and had all the hype. Everyone wanted them to beat Melbourne and it didn’t happen.
They have a bit of a tendency to be ambushed in these big games but this year they’ll start to emerge from that weakness, beginning with the match against Souths tonight.
Last year, week one of the finals, they trailed 10-0 and ended up flogging the Roosters. They rolled the dice against Souths and they were able to get out of it.
Melbourne ambushed them on grand final day and they couldn’t recover.
For Penrith, this one’s all about their start. If it’s 0-0 after 15 minutes, Penrith could go through Souths and run away with it.
But Souths may have learned some lessons out of the other week and they may try to turn it into a shootout. They’ll see if Penrith can go with them and be happy to win 30-28.
If the Rabbitohs jump out all of a sudden that pressure starts to tighten up.
It would be easy to say the key battle here is between the No.7s, Nathan Cleary and Adam Reynolds, but I actually think the more influential clash is the battle of the No.6s Jarome Luai and Cody Walker.
Both teams have halfbacks who can control the game, kick to corners and put them in position. And they both are playmakers.
Jarome Luai’s running game can be dangerous but he has had his struggles recently. Against the Tigers two weeks ago he had his best game since Origin and he was little bit flat going into that.
Cody Walker’s got a point to prove.
He was criticised when they played a couple of weeks ago but he the ability to catch lightning in a bottle here and get really hot in one of these games.
That’s all it could take – no Latrell Mitchell, their backs against the wall, no one giving them a shot, then all of a sudden Walker and Reynolds turn it on for one game and they’re in another prelim.
Roosters versus Titans
Everyone has talked about how well the Roosters have done to get to where they are considering the issues they’ve faced this season.
I’m no different. It’s absolutely amazing what Trent Robinson and the Roosters’ organisation have done.
The trouble is they coming up against a Titans side where there’s no form guide.
You see what they did on the weekend when they pumped their chests out, turned on the smiles and scored 40 points against the Warriors.
If the Roosters can control a fair share of possession and their kicking game’s good, which it should be with Drew Hutchison in that role, and they unleash James Tedesco when they get close, then they should have enough.
Tom Trbojevic might be having the best season ever, but Tedesco’s not far behind in terms of how he’s been able to lift that team up on his back and been able to get results.
The Titans would need to move the ball around a lot, second phase, and come up with a game plan of high completions, but also a little bit of risk as well.
I don’t want to see the Titans try and kick to a corner and try to out-Rooster the Roosters because that’s not going to happen.
David Fifita is their key man – that’s who all their energy and your emotion levels come from. They know Fifita’s the big dog.
He hasn’t always performed up to that in every game but if he’s on and he’s able to tear the Roosters to shreds, they may be able to upset them.
Robinson faces an interesting call in the halves between Sam Walker and Lachie Lam.
I’ve loved watching Walker, but too often we think that every 18-19-year-old halfback is going to be Nathan Cleary and play in Origin and play in grand finals.
Walker has come in and had really good games and then he’s had some really tough, physical lessons about what it takes to play in the NRL.
He’ll play a part but the safer option probably would be Lam – he’s a bit bigger body and he’s been there before and played in those games.
But if you’re looking for X-Factor, and the game to open up, Sam Walker’s style actually suits this game against the Titans.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a late change. The Titans are loose. They’re going give you a chance to score points.
And he’s an attacking-minded player who has shown this year that he’s not afraid to throw the big pass and the Titans are going to give the opportunities.
Knights versus Eels
The Knights-Eels game is a really interesting match-up.
Parramatta started the season pretty well. In the middle of the year they bash everyone and then they hit the skids.
And the questions that come out of this game if they lose? If they lose in the first week of the finals, that puts massive question marks on them as a team.
This is going to be a side that needs to start really, really fast. This year, if they conceded the first try they really struggled to adjust their attacking game on the run.
It reminds me of the Dragons team I played in in 2010. If we got ten points behind, at times we had struggled to adjust our plan or maybe we adjusted it too much.
Parramatta should win this first week but up until last week, I could have seen Newcastle winning this match up maybe six times out of ten.
They’ve got the players in the key positions. You look at Jayden Brailey, Mitchell Pearce and young Jake Clifford has been tremendous.
Then there’s Kalyn Ponga and we’ve all seen what he can do. If he comes in with the right boots on and he’s playing both sides of the field, bringing the ball back, gets a couple of lucky passes to stick, all of a sudden, the pressure of being Parramatta with another season, another failure, all that just creeps in subconsciously without you even knowing it.
You look up at the clock and you’re down by ten points with 15 minutes to go. Newcastle didn’t impress me last week but that was more attitude.
Newcastle can cause the upset here.