It has been a long time since the Penrith Panthers had something to properly celebrate, with their last NRL premier coming way back in 2003, when they handed the dominating Sydney Roosters an 18-6 defeat in the Grand Final to pick up only their second ever Premiership title. A long time has passed since then and the Panthers have not reached another Grand Final in what has been 14 long years for the club.
It is unlikely that 2017 will be the year that the Panthers end their long wait for NRL success or even secure a place in the Grand Final but Anthony Griffin’s side have the chance to pick up a mini victory and a mini success in itself by reaching the top-eight by the end of the regular season, something that did not seem achievable back in April.
The Panthers are currently ninth in the ladder and are seemingly in a battle with the St George Illawarra Dragons for the final place in the NRL’s top-eight after 26 rounds. There is, of course, a chance that Parramatta Eels or the Manly Sea Eagles, placed sixth and seventh respectively, could be pulled into a dogfight for the top-eight but it is looking increasingly likely it will be a shootout between Griffin’s side and Paul McGregor’s Dragons.
The Dragons currently hold the advantage and, despite both clubs currently sitting level on points, McGregor’s side are in eighth place after Round 21. However, the Panthers are now priced at just 1.4 on the Oddschecker comparison site to make the end of season qualifiers, after a sensational swing of results.
The race for the top-eight took a sensational swing in last weekend’s fixtures, with Penrith really piling the pressure onto the Dragons, making the battle between the two clubs one of the most intriguing in the NRL season. Griffin’s side picked up an impressive 16-8 victory over the Canterbury Bulldogs, hours before the Dragons faced off with the Newcastle Knights – the club currently stranded at the bottom of the NRL ladder.
The Knights picked up a sensational 21-14 victory over the Dragons, leaving McGregor’s side hanging onto their place in the top-eight by a thread and handing the Panthers a major boost in their quest for a place in the finals. There are just a handful of rounds remaining before the end of the regular season and all eyes will be on the Round 25 clash between the Panthers and the Dragons, which could prove to be a classic in the race for the top-eight.
Penrith are currently in sensational form and will fancy their chances of stealing a place in the top-eight from under the Dragons’ noses, having lost just twice since Round 10. Their last defeat came in round 17 against the South Sydney Rabbitohs and, since then, they have won four on the bounce, grinding out results against the Manly Sea Eagles, New Zealand Warriors, and Gold Coast Titans, before their latest triumph over the Bulldogs.
Nathan Cleary has been one of the NRL’s standout players in 2017, with the 19-year-old half-back showing real maturity to show Australia just how far he could potentially go in his career. He is the NRL’s leading points scorer this year with 168 and has been the key creative cog for the Panthers and their recent surge to the top-eight.
In his last four appearances, Cleary has three tries and four try assists, and despite having a quiet game by his standards in the victory over the Bulldogs, he is still in frightening form. His performance in Penrith’s 34-22 victory over the New Zealand Warriors in Round 19 was nothing short of breathtaking, with the 19-year-old scoring a hat-trick of tries, bagging two try assists, and kicking five goals to set his side up for a sensational victory and take his tally for the season to eight tries and eight try assists.
When Penrith face the Dragons in Round 25, Cleary will face one of his biggest tasks of the season, when he comes up against Gareth Widdop, who is in sensational form for McGregor’s side, despite the team picking up just one victory in their last four fixtures.
A lot like the Panthers are turning to their teenage superstar Cleary, the Dragons are turning to their English five-eighth to guide them into the top-eight at the end of the regular season. Widdop has scored 147 points this season, which is a remarkable return considering he has only played in 15 rounds.
The 28-year-old Englishman has kicked 53 goals for the Dragons, as well as scoring ten tries and assisting 15, which makes him the NRL’s most influential player in 2017. Widdop struggled in the recent defeat to Newcastle, kicking three goals and failing to provide the creative spark that has been on show in the last month.
However, despite McGregor’s side suffering a slump in form over the last four rounds, Widdop has stood up to the plate to lead his side into battle every week, with his performances deserving more than defeats. Coincidentally, Widdop’s best performance in recent weeks came in a fixture that the Dragons won convincingly, 52-22 against the Manly Sea Eagles in Round 20.
A week before that, Cleary had put in a sensational display to guide the Panthers to victory over the Warriors but Widdop was not to be shown up by his junior, scoring 20-points in a comprehensive victory for the Dragons. The 28-year-old scored a try, assisted a further two, as well as kicking eight goals, in one of the most complete displays seen in the 2017 competition.
The Dragons’ disappointing form in the last few weeks has opened the door for the Panthers but McGregor will remain confident that, whilst Widdop is at the top of his game, his side have a strong chance of holding off Penrith’s fight for the top-eight.
All eyes will, of course, be on the Round 25 clash between Penrith and St George at the Pepper Stadium, with a particular interest in how 19-year-old Cleary stands up against the experienced Widdop.
When the two sides previously met, back in Round 1, it was Widdop that put on a masterclass in the halves, scoring two tries, adding two try assists, and kicking seven goals leading his side to a 42-10 victory. Cleary managed just one goal and missed two tackles in that fixture, starting his 2017 campaign in the worst possible way.
The Round 25 clash is sure to be different, with so much more riding on the fixture. Griffin will be confident that his forwards – in particular, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Trent Merrin – will hand Cleary an excellent platform to run the game from half-back.
McGregor will be conscious of the Dragons’ slump in form and will be turning to his forwards to assist Widdop by also handing the Englishman a solid platform to guide his teammates around the pitch.
The penultimate game of the season between the Panthers and Dragons is sure to be a classic and the battle between Cleary and Widdop in the halves could be the deciding factor in the game. However, it is looking likely that the fixture will have more than just two-points at stake, with both clubs challenging for a place in the top-eight.
Whoever finishes in the top-eight is highly unlikely to challenge for silverware, with Melbourne Storm, Cronulla Sharks, and Sydney Roosters streets ahead of the rest but, should the Panthers complete a sensational comeback and clinch a place in the finals, it will give the club a huge boost and perhaps give them the confidence that they can end their long wait for silverware in the coming years.