Another compelling instalment of the blossoming new-age rivalry between the Panthers and Canberra Raiders takes place this Sunday in the nation’s capital.
Two sides who were heavily backed to challenge at the top end of the ladder after breakout seasons in 2016 have struggled to meet expectations with both teams currently locked in a five-way battle to make it in to the finals.
The Panthers eventually overcame their sluggish start to 2017 and have climbed up the ladder to lead the chase for a finals berth. A mid-season resurgence similar to a season ago, including ten wins from their past twelve games, has them sitting in sixth and poised to repeat their efforts of charging in to September.
The Raiders are still reeling from a mid-season slump that saw them slip to five defeats from six games. That left them four points adrift of eighth place and relying on a Panthers-like winning streak, plus other results to go their way, to come in to finals contention.
The Panthers continued their winning ways against the Cowboys last Saturday to leapfrog the chasing pack with a 24-16 win. Boom halfback Nathan Cleary once again led from the front with another instrumental performance, including two tries and four conversions.
Anthony Griffin has been forced in to one change after Peter Wallace suffered a broken hand during the game, with Sione Katoa named as his replacement. Trent Merrin is listed amongst the reserves after returning to training midweek and is an outside chance to make a comeback from a knee injury sustained against the Warriors a month ago.
Raiders coach Ricky Stuart is able to name an unchanged side to the one that defeated the Warriors 36-16 in New Zealand. Centre Joseph Leilua retains his spot to line up inside strike partner Jordan Rapana after recovering from a knock to the knee that forced him to come from the field during the game last Sunday.
The rivalry between the Raiders and Panthers doesn’t need reminding given their history, yet amazingly these two sides are all square in their 71 previous clashes with 35 wins apiece and a draw.
That trend has continued since the opening round of 2016 with both sides claiming two wins respectively. A late Shaun Fensom try sealed a closely fought victory in Round One last season, before a Wallace field goal provided the difference later in the year in Bathurst. The Raiders would have the last laugh in their Semi-Final clash to end the Panthers season.
Another Bathurst classic took place in Round Fourteen this season when Matt Moylan orchestrated a miraculous revival to run down the Raiders in the final three minutes and clinch a 24-20 win.
Trailing by eight with two minutes remaining on the clock, Moylan combined with Corey Harawira-Naera to cut the margin to two with time left for only one more set.
The Panthers skipper led his side in to Raiders territory before poking through the defence and freeing an arm for Tyrone Peachey to race clear and seal a stunning victory that brought Bathurst to its feet and shattered the Raiders’ hopes of Finals football.
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