Preliminary Final 1
Panthers v Bulldogs preview
Even just a fortnight ago, the chances of the Panthers playing the Bulldogs for a spot in the 2014 decider seemed fairly remote – but a lot can happen in two weeks.
The seventh-placed Bulldogs disposing of the two most successful clubs of the past decade in consecutive games, for example.
Or 2014's Cinderella story in the Panthers, who continue to defy the odds, defy the doubters, defy reputations and injuries and whatever else you can name, and just keep winning games – including that super-impressive Qualifying Final win over the best team of 2013 and this year's minor premiers to earn themselves a week off.
That week off is crucial too, especially given the side's recent run with injury. Not too many players looked more like they needed a week off after the first week of finals than hard-hitting Panther Nigel Plum.
But he's not the only one nursing a few bumps and bruises, and history shows that week off to be favourable; you have to go back to the 2006 Broncos to find an NRL premiership-winning side that played all four weeks of the finals. That's now seven straight years the title has gone to a team that earned the week off and with the nature of the wrestle and physicality of the modern game it looks like a bigger leg-up than ever.
The Bulldogs won't be too worried though – they finally have some momentum back after coming into the finals with just two wins from eight games. They were far too strong for the Storm a fortnight ago in Melbourne and it looked like they were on track to hand a similar hiding to Manly before a maroon-and-white hit-back forced the game to golden point.
Penrith coach Ivan Cleary is one person who will be more than happy that game went for longer than 80 minutes but Bulldogs clipboard-holder Des Hasler will just be happy that his side won, regardless of whether it took 80 minutes or 85.
They will be relieved that key pair Josh Jackson (arm pressure on Josh Starling) and Michael Ennis (high tackle on Daly Cherry-Evans) were cleared by the match review committee and have named an unchanged 17, with Moses Mbye and Harlan Alaalatoa again on the extended bench.
Penrith's week off not only gave them an extra week's rest but also a week with no danger of incurring additional injuries or suspensions. They welcome back hard-hitting back-rower Adam Docker from a two-game suspension, pushing Sam Anderson to an extended bench that also features Kevin Naiqama.
Watch Out Panthers: Last week, Trent Hodkinson reminded us how to win clutch games (a feat he was making a habit of earlier in the year) and Sam Perrett produced one of his best efforts in the No.1 jersey, but there's no doubting Canterbury's impressive last fortnight is all down to their forward power.
James Graham was the man against the Storm and he was at it again last week – but if anything was almost shaded by fellow big boppers Aiden Tolman and Tony Williams. 'T-Rex' was back to his destructive best, with several ferocious charges helping to lay the platform for the Dogs' early dominance and seemingly bending the line at will – as befits an athlete of his size and power.
He's been accused of not taking full advantage of those attributes at times but they were brought to bear against his old club as he racked up 178 metres from 16 quality hit-ups with eight tackle breaks and two offloads (although with 10 missed tackles his defence remains a concern).
Tolman produced even bigger numbers, with a match-high 222 metres and 43 tackles, while Graham pumped out another 164 metres and 34 tackles while also doing all the little things in between. With the likes of Josh Jackson, Dale Finucane and Greg Eastwood all in good form and Frank Pritchard getting better with each run back from injury it's becoming a very imposing pack.
Watch Out Bulldogs: The Panthers have been the close- range specialists of the competition in recent weeks. In fact, for the 26 tries they've scored since Round 20 for which there was a previous play-the-ball (so, not including the Jamie Soward intercept try in Round 25 against the Sea Eagles) just two from 26 were scored from a play-the-ball beyond their opponent's 30 metre line. In fact, just five came from a play-the-ball outside their opponent's 10 metre line.
Further, 23 of those 26 play-the-balls came in the middle third of the field, with two on the left and one on the right.
What all this suggests in that Penrith's success comes from a big charge up the middle, followed by either a quick dart out of dummy-half by James Segeyaro (four tries in those eight games) or, more often, a quick spread to the likes of Jamie Soward or Matt Moylan for a big cut-out or grubber behind the line to get their outside backs involved.
Plays To Watch: Expect plenty of scoots from dummy-half and general high involvement from busy backs Josh Mansour and Sam Perrett. Perrett's 65 runs from dummy-half is more than any non-hooker this year aside from Justin Hodges and Brett Morris, while Mansour's 372 total runs is third among non-forwards. When coupled with an NRL-high 149 tackle breaks (not too far off one tackle break for every two runs) his high-octane carries are a huge part of Penrith's territorial game. Perrett's 87 breaks from 341 runs are nothing to sneeze at, making him 15th in total busts. Throw in his 98 kick defusals (2nd, after Anthony Minichiello's 113) and these two busy, nuggety ball runners become absolutely key components in the early parts of their side's sets.
Where It Will Be Won: Winning the moment. Like Bulldogs coach Des Hasler said (sort of, we think) during the week, it could come down to which players seize those big moments in games. Last week it was ice-cold work from Trent Hodkinson – and the week before Jamie Soward – that earned their sides amazing one-point wins. Hodkinson's two perfect field goals take him to four for the year (equal most) while Soward's clutch sideline conversion and follow up field goal show that young gun Matt Moylan isn't the only Panther capable of owning those big, high-pressure moments. Bulldogs fans won't have forgotten it was one such effort from Moylan back in Round 3 that beat the Dogs after the bell with a sideline conversion. Given both of last week's semi-finals, and Penrith's most recent game a week earlier, were decided by a single point – winning that big moment could well decide which of these sides goes on to the big one.
History: Played 85; Panthers 34, Bulldogs 48; drawn 3. The Panthers have actually had the wood over the Dogs for a while now – aside from winning both previous encounters this year, Penrith have won five of the past seven and 11 of the past 14 against the blue and whites. We're not sure we're buying the angle that this turns the Bulldogs into underdogs though.
What Are The Odds: Punters believe Sportsbet got it wrong by installing the Bulldogs favourites in this match – there’s been three times the money bet on the Panthers in the head to head market, and nearly all of the cash has gone on Penrith at the line of +2.5. Panthers 1-12 is by far the most popular winning margin. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gavin Badger; Touch Judges – Jason Walsh & Grant Atkins; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: This one really is on a knife's edge. The Bulldogs have momentum. The Panthers played 85 minutes less football last weekend and their bodies will be thankful for it. Those two factors may well cancel each other out. It really could come down to a single pass, penalty, missed tackle, knock-on or field goal. The Dogs' forward pack is looking imposing but the likes of Nigel Plum, Adam Docker, Sam McKendry, Brent Kite and co. won't be intimidated. If it does come down to a sideline conversion or clutch field goal each team is well equipped with their own clutch performers who can get them over the line. We'll take the Panthers in another one-point thriller.
Story first appeared on NRL.com