Panther cubs prepare for the unknown
Penrith will have just a handful of senior players with finals experience when they run out for a do-or-die elimination final against a Canterbury side packed with big-game players – but they say they'll treat it like any other game.
Of Penrith's last finals campaign, only captain Matt Moylan, wingers Josh Mansour and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and bench prop Jeremy Latimore are still in the frame for this one. Senior men Peter Wallace, Trent Merrin and Suaia Matagi have played finals elsewhere in the NRL.
Bench utility and former UK Man of Steel Zak Hardaker has won grand finals and Challenge Cup finals back home with Leeds and has no shortage of big-game experience in the northern hemisphere but he says there's nothing he could have said to Penrith's exciting young crop of stars that would have improved their already sound mindsets.
"I've been fortunate to play in quite a lot of finals back home so I know what to expect," Hardaker said.
"It's probably different teams and a different kind of rugby league they play over here but it's still the same, it's a finals game, it's do-or-die, if you get knocked out that's it so it's pretty important."
But despite that he hasn’t tried to offer his teammates any advice.
"I'll just leave them to their own game; they've been fantastic the last few weeks and there's nothing I could have done to make them score more points or defend better," he said.
"I've come into this team quite late so it's great to be a part of at the moment."
BE THERE at Allianz Stadium on Sunday, September 11 and support your Bulldogs as we fight to continue our finals campaign and take on Penrith Panthers in a must-win elimination final. Get your tickets here: www.nrl.com.au/tickets
Penrith skipper Moylan – one of the handful with finals experience – said he wasn't expecting any issues despite the team's lack of finals experience or the fact their recent opponents have not offered up finals-intensity clashes.
"I think everyone's prepared well; I don't think anyone's overawed at the situation," Moylan said.
"It's one of the biggest stages any of the boys will have played on, not having played finals before, but I think they're just taking it in their stride and preparing as if it's another week.
"Obviously it's a big game being a do-or-die semi-final and we're preparing well for that."
Like Moylan, five-eighth Bryce Cartwright believes that approaching this weekend like a normal game was the best approach.
Cartwright was in the team for the previous finals campaign but watched from the sidelines with a broken ankle and as such is readying for his first NRL finals match.
"I'm not too sure [what to expect] because I haven't played in a finals series myself," Cartwright said.
"We'll just be going out there treating it like any other game but everyone says that it's a different ball game.
"We've got a few older guys that will help us out and we're just going to treat it like any other game."
Cartwright's halves partner, teenager Nathan Cleary, is barely a dozen games into his first grade career, let alone a finals campaign. But Cartwright tipped the prodigy to handle this task as well as he has handed everything else that has come his way this year.
"Nothing seems to faze him so I'm sure he'll take it with two hands," Cartwright said.
"We've got a lot of help there with 'Mez' (Merrin) and 'Wally' (Wallace) and 'Moysa' (Moylan) has played in a few finals games as well so I think we'll be fine."
Having achieved a top-eight berth, the Panthers – who earlier in the season looked a fair way out of the finals frame before a late surge of seven wins from eight games lifted them to sixth – are adamant they're not just out to make up the numbers in September.
"That was the first goal we set, to be playing finals footy," Moylan said.
"That's why everyone plays rugby league and now that we've achieved that we don't want to be just playing one game and making up the numbers, we want to see how deep we can go into the finals series and trying to keep playing good footy."
Added Cartwright: "We don't want to go out already, we're definitely looking for bigger and better things. It's do-or-die now for us obviously so I think a young side like us will enjoy it."