The Penrith Panthers have been waiting all season for this match.
Many of us thought we’d be seeing these two in the big dance once again. Sport doesn’t work that way, though, and with the Storm obliterating the Sea Eagles in Week 1 of the finals and the Rabbitohs shocking the Panthers, it catapulted the two onto opposite sides of the draw.
Last week, the Panthers just had to get past Parramatta, walking on the eggshells of sudden death finals footy a week sooner than they hoped. Their gritty 8-6 win has them come up against the opponent that they have waited all season to face.
In the post-match press conference after last year’s grand final, Panthers coach Ivan Cleary lamented, “I’d love to have the game again tomorrow, that’s for sure.”
The Panthers’ entire season has had that flavour about it. They overcame all obstacles last year, to charge to the top of the ladder and into the grand final. But when it came down to the biggest game of all, they just didn’t perform how they wanted to.
You don’t get any concessions for being runner up. You just have to start all over again, get back into the grind and find the motivation to go one better next time. The Panthers got into that grind, and once again beat just about everyone to finish top two.
The three games they did drop during the regular season had some context about them too, and if it weren’t for their Origin representation, they probably finish first once again.
They were explosive for the first 12 rounds. Every bit the cocky and confident minor premiership team they had been in 2020. And can you blame them? They always seemed to have the answer to any threat that came their way.
The back end of the season has been a little different, though. They have had to deal with injuries, namely to star halfback Nathan Cleary, as well as navigate the mid-season Origin period with seven representatives throughout the series. They haven’t had it all their way as they so often have recently.
They’ve kept winning, but not in the same way. Watching their last two regular season games against the Tigers and Eels, they weren’t at their best despite winning by big margins. They looked like a team that was tired of running over opponents that offered little resistance and like they were ready for the big time.
By the time it came to South Sydney, it was as though they had bought too much into the narrative that the grand final was theirs to lose. They’d beaten the Rabbitohs on the march to the finals last year, and just a few weeks ago and surely they would do so again, earning a week off and one step closer to the rematch everyone was talking about. That’s just not how it panned out, though.
The loss against the Rabbitohs roused the Panthers. They didn’t click so much in attack last week, but they had real resolve in defence and were prepared to win ugly. It could have quite easily been the Eels that progressed, but the Panthers just hung in, with some missed opportunities in attack as well.
The Panthers have to be looking back to their Round 3 match against the Storm as inspiration to win this one. A game where they didn’t hit the front until the 79th minute, then held off a final desperate Storm raid after the siren to win the game.
The Panthers haven’t been clicking in attack, but they have still been stoic in defence. They have some individuals really struggling for form but as a team in defence they are performing as well as ever. Three tries conceded in two games of finals footy is a real effort no matter what and it should give them the confidence that if they can score a few tries, their defence can win them this football game.
The Panthers aren’t Manly, they aren’t looking to one man at the back to win them the game, they are a team where if everyone does their job, they win.
If Dylan Edwards catches everything on the full and runs it back with gusto. If Brian To’o runs 300 metres off his own line. If Nathan Cleary tests Ryan Papenhuyzen with his kicking game and nails everything off the kicking tee. If James Fisher-Harris, Liam Martin and Moses Leota take it to the Storm pack. If Villiame Kikau finds a bust down the left with Matt Burton in support.
If those things happen, the Panthers can win this game.
Most of all, they have to be prepared to win it in the 80th minute and go the length with this champion Storm team. They lost last year’s decider to the Melbourne side because they panicked. They had some possession and territory but nothing to show for it, while the Storm got on the board through a couple of lucky opportunities.
They panicked and the mountain just got higher and higher. It was a testament to them that they even had a chance to win it in the 80th minute but they can’t leave themselves that much to do this time around.
The same fate befell Manly against the Storm. They were too slow out of the blocks and Melbourne didn’t miss. You can’t give them anything that comes in the shape of errors, field position or penalties. They will hurt you, they are comfortably the most clinical and efficient side in the competition and that is what has them such heavy favourites going into this one.
Here the Panthers are again, their season set to be decided against the Storm. The team they so desperately want to be. The success they want to cultivate. Even if they win they still have the grand final, but you sense this is the Panthers’ greatest psychological test, the only team they haven’t conquered.
The “tomorrow” that Ivan Cleary wanted has finally come for the Panthers, ten long months later. Will the result be any different on Saturday?