The Panthers and Sea Eagles have been left reeling. They had two concerning losses for different reasons, as both clubs have a week to get their act together with their next loss spelling the end of their season.
The Sea Eagles were the first victims on the weekend. They weren’t the first and they certainly won’t be the last team to be ambushed in the finals by the clinical Melbourne Storm.
They were heavy underdogs, but everyone was giving them a chance, and that was in no small way due to the headline act at the back, Tommy Trbojevic. The Sea Eagles were confident, and they should have been. After starting the season 0-4, they won 16 of their last 20 to make the finals in fourth.
They would have also been buoyed by their last start against the Storm. They lost by ten on that night, but were right in the game throughout and that was with a poor completion rate and a less than fair share of possession. They pushed the Storm and would have been using that as a source of confidence.
But the finals are a whole new ball game, a whole new competition and the Storm are specialists at it. They were full strength on Friday and it showed. When the Sea Eagles made an error in the opening five minutes the Storm capitalised straight away. It was the story of the night. The Sea Eagles were unable to ever build pressure or go set for set.
Tom Trbojevic has been out of this world this year, but he isn’t a magician. If he doesn’t have the rest of the team doing their job and good ball to work with, he can’t win every game himself. He has inspired Manly on many occasions this year, but the Storm just never let Trbojevic become a factor.
The Sea Eagles have an extra day to prepare for a busted Roosters side next week. The Roosters have been heroic this year, overcoming all their injury woes to qualify for the finals in fifth and get home against the Titans last week. But they looked out on their feet at the end of the match, and narrowly held on for the win. They also conceded 24 points.
The Sea Eagles will be confident once again, but now have the added incentive of a loss spelling the end of the season. The Roosters won’t be able to nullify the Sea Eagles like the Storm did and it could mean the end of their season.
Win and the Sea Eagles have the Rabbitohs waiting for them. That would be an intriguing match-up. The Sea Eagles have played some great footy this year, but the next fortnight will show us who they really are.
The Panthers were ambushed on Saturday night, by themselves. Wayne Bennett helped things along. The wily coach inspired his own side and said enough in the media to get inside Ivan Cleary’s head with commentary on how Nathan Cleary has become a protected species.
Things have gone according to script for the Panthers for a couple of seasons now. With the exception of the grand final last year, they have just kept winning. This year in particular they haven’t had to work all that hard, and in their three losses they’ve had ready-made excuses in Origin and injury to that man Cleary.
They bought into their own storyline against the Rabbitohs; that without Latrell Mitchell they would do it easily, and that if Blake Taaffe indeed lined up at fullback that Cleary would torment him all night long and force him into mistake and misery.
An early error to Taaffe and a try to Stephen Crichton would have made the Panthers feel that once again things were just going to work out for them. A week off beckoned, and a grand final against the Storm was in the bag.
Or so they thought. The Rabbitohs aimed up. A team that conceded 50 points to the Panthers mid-season, and lost to them just three weeks ago, took it to them, and tackled their way to victory.
The Panthers have been so rarely stressed this year that when they got there on Saturday they couldn’t deal with it. They looked like a team of individuals that was waiting for someone else to come up with the winning play and in the end they left some very real opportunities out there, unable to ice them.
The truth is the Panthers haven’t been going all that well, but the quality of their opposition has kept them winning. They have rarely had to get out of second gear to win this year and now they have to find some form to save their season.
They started this season where they left off last year: a brash bunch of confident footballers, any of them able to produce something special.
It led to Origin caps for seven of them, and since then they have struggled to get the band back together. With so much football over the last 18 months or so, maybe the hot air is starting to come out of the balloon.
More concerning was how Ivan Cleary still wanted to got to war with Wayne Bennett post game, rather than talk about how they had been outplayed and the approach they would take to rectify things.
Winning glosses over things and now maybe the Panthers have had the latest possible loss they can have, and still be a chance of winning the premiership. It is sudden death now, and they need a far better performance against the Eels on Saturday.
The Eels aren’t going to leave anything out there, and they will be confident of the upset. They have just as much to prove after slipping from the top four, after being there most of this year.
The Panthers can’t afford to come out cocky and confident, expecting that things will just go to script, unless they learn the same lesson once again, with far harsher consequences. Each player has to want to be the difference, and play up to the standards we have seen from the Panthers of the past two years.
Win against the Eels and the face the Storm. It would be a week earlier than they wanted but the equation hasn’t changed. They were almost certainly going to have to beat them at some stage.
If the Panthers want to be a championship team, they have to find a way now, in the championship rounds. Premiership windows don’t tend to stay open too long.