After seven wins in their last eight matches the Penrith Panthers are one side from the bottom four in the finals series capable of having a good tilt at the premiership.
Their first challenge of the campaign comes on Sunday afternoon when the ‘host’ Canterbury Bulldogs at Allianz Stadium.
In 2014 they played off in the qualifying Grand Final with the Bulldogs running out winners 18-12. This is something the Panthers will be looking to avenge.
This time around the Bulldogs are coming into the finals series off the back of three straight losses and down in confidence.
Penrith will be wary of Des Hasler’s precise finals preparation which has made him one of the most successful coaches of the modern era.
There’s been a considerable shift since June in attitude at the western Sydney club. Veteran halfback Jamie Soward was moved on and out of favour James Segeyaro was shifted to the Leeds Rhinos where it’s just been announced he will stay for a further two seasons.
It was a gamble by Anthony Griffin knowing his side needed to lift if they were to qualify for this year’s finals.
Yes it’s fair to say the club had it’s difficult times mid-season with the player transition. After losses against Wests Tigers and then a poor home defeat to the Sharks, their season was on shaky ground.
The promotion of Nathan Cleary has been a masterstroke.
Where Soward had struggled with his general game in the earlier part of 2016, Cleary has been the opposite. He’s not been afraid to put his body on the line in defence. His kicking game in general play has been superb (just ask Corey Oates and Jordan Rankin how they feel trying to catch one of his towering punts).
The most important difference is Cleary’s confidence to take on the line. Soward had struggled with this at the back end of his career.
Peter Wallace has defied the newspaper talk pre-season that he and coach Anthony Griffin didn’t get on by having a wonderful season at hooker.
There is a no-nonsense approach to Wallace’s game which has resulted in Penrith playing with a lot more structure in attack. In the twenty games he’s played in the nine jumper this season, Penrith have gone on to win twelve. Now at thirty years of age, Wallace could be around for a few more years to come and be successful in his new role at the club.
These two decisions on player personnel mid-season have allowed the re-emergence of Matt Moylan at fullback.
Instead of being dictated by Soward where to be positioned in attack and battling with Segeyaro as a play maker inside the opponents twenty, Moylan has free reign to become involved in play more often. This combined with coming back from Origin football a tougher and more mature player has seen the Panthers rise in confidence at the back end of this season.
And maturity in the last half of the season has been a reason why clubs should be wary of Penrith. Take for example Isaah Yeo who’s become a better and more mature player playing second row for the club.
The winning feeling in the club has shined off on Tyrone Peachey as well. After a disappointing 2015, Peachey has been fantastic in the last month of footy including a huge game against the Gold Coast Titans a fortnight ago.
Hopefully the winning feeling can continue into the finals series.
Watching the team develop you get the sense that they are focused on one game at a time and not worrying about the future. Another sign the young side is maturing into one of the better sides in the National Rugby League.
If Penrith are to go on and win this year’s premiership they will need to beat their previous club record winning streak of eight games back in the year they last won the premiership, 2003. They currently sit on five in a row.
Most Panther fans and some rugby league commentators say 2016 won’t be their year and that 2017 will be the one where Penrith break their 14 year drought.
I say “Sieze the Day” and go for broke in 2016 because you never know what’s around the corner.