This match has been a long time coming for the Penrith Panthers.
Many of us had expected to see these two at the big dance once more. But sport doesn’t work that way, as the Storm’s thrashing of the Sea Eagles in Week 1 of the finals, followed by the Rabbitohs’ upset of the Panthers, put the two teams on opposite sides of the draw.
The Panthers only had to go through Parramatta last week, putting them on the edge of sudden death finals footy a week earlier than they had hoped. After a tenacious 8-6 victory, they will play the opponent they have been anticipating all season.
“I’d love to have the game again tomorrow, that’s for sure,” Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said in the post-match press conference after last year’s grand final.
The Panthers’ entire season has been tinged with that flavor. Last year, they surmounted all barriers to reach the top of the ladder and the grand final. But when it came to the most important game of all, they just did not deliver.
Being a runner-up does not entitle you to any benefits. All you have to do now is start over, get back into the grind, and find the determination to do better the next time. The Panthers got back into the grind and beat almost everyone to finish in the top two once more.
They would have finished first again if it weren’t for their Origin representation, and the three games they did drop during the regular season had some context to them as well.
For the first 12 rounds, they were on fire. They’re still the same smug, confident minor premiership club they were in 2020. Is it possible to blame them? They always seemed to have a solution to any problem that arose.
However, the second half of the season has been a little different. They’ve had to battle with injuries, particularly to star halfback Nathan Cleary, as well as manage the mid-season Origin time with seven players. They haven’t had it all their own way as frequently as they have in recent years.
They’ve continued to triumph, but not in the same way. Despite winning by large scores in their last two regular season games against the Tigers and Eels, they weren’t at their best. They appeared to be a team that was tired of stomping on opponents who put up little opposition, and they appeared to be ready for the big time.
It was as though they had bought too much into the narrative that the grand final was theirs to lose by the time it arrived to South Sydney. They’d beaten the Rabbitohs on their way to the finals last year, and they’d done it again just a few weeks ago, earning a week off and putting themselves one step closer to the rematch everyone was talking about. However, that isn’t how it turned out.
The Panthers were energised by their setback against the Rabbitohs. Last week, they didn’t click as well in attack, but they showed remarkable commitment in defense and were willing to lose in a big way. The Eels could have easily progressed, but the Panthers simply stuck in there, despite some squandered attacking possibilities.
The Panthers will have to draw inspiration from their Round 3 meeting against the Storm in order to win this one. They didn’t score until the 79th minute, then held off a last-ditch Storm attack after the final whistle to win the game.
The Panthers haven’t been clicking offensively, but they’ve remained steadfast on defense. They have a few players who are suffering with their form, but as a group, they are playing as well as they have in the past. Three tries conceded in two finals games is a tremendous effort, and it should inspire them to believe that if they can score a few tries, their defense can win them the game.
The Panthers aren’t Manly; they don’t rely on one player in the back to win games; instead, they are a team that wins when everyone does their job.
If Dylan Edwards catches everything and runs it back with vigor. If Brian To’o sprints 300 meters off his own line, he will be disqualified. If Nathan Cleary puts Ryan Papenhuyzen to the test with his kicking game and hits every kick off the tee. If it’s taken to the Storm pack by James Fisher-Harris, Liam Martin, and Moses Leota. If Villiame Kikau and Matt Burton can find a bust down the left.
The Panthers have a chance to win this game if those things happen.
Most importantly, they must be prepared to win in the 80th minute and go the distance against the champion Storm. They were defeated by Melbourne in the final last year because they panicked. They had considerable possession and territory but no points to show for it, but the Storm were able to score thanks to a number of fortunate breaks.
They became scared, and the mountain continued to rise. It was a testament to them that they had a chance to win it in the 80th minute, but they can’t afford to leave themselves with too much to do this time.
Manly suffered the same fate against the Storm. Melbourne didn’t miss because they were too slow out of the blocks. You can’t give them anything in the form of penalties, field position, or errors. They’ll harm you; they’re the competition’s most clinical and efficient team, which is why they’re such heavy favorites going into this match.
The Panthers are back, with their season on the line versus the Storm. They want to be a part of the team they so desperately want to be a part of. They seek to cultivate success. Even if they win, they still have a chance at the grand final, but you get the feeling this is the Panthers’ toughest psychological test yet, as they face the only side they haven’t beaten.
After 10 long months, Ivan Cleary’s “tomorrow” has finally arrived for the Panthers. Will Saturday’s outcome be any different?