It’s the first elimination final of the 2018 NRL Finals series and the first clash of a massive Saturday of football as the Penrith Panthers shift from their traditional base at the foot of the magnificent Blue Mountains to Sydney Olympic Park’s behemoth ANZ Stadium to host the New Zealand Warriors.
The Kiwi side put the Panthers to the sword in a comprehensive fashion just a fortnight ago on home soil and they’ll hope that Stephen Kearney and his coaching staff have been able to pack the magic and neatly stow it in the overhead compartment for their quick trip across the ditch.
With the loser packing their bags and going home, both sides will need to bring their A-game to Saturday evening’s clash if they want to book their passage through to the next phase of the competition.
It’s a long off-season and no team-trips to Bali or Las Vegas or even a cruise around the local harbour will do little to console the loser of this one given both sides will feel justified in expecting to go further.
2018 – New Zealand Warriors 36 def. Penrith Panthers 16 at Mt Smart Stadium
2018 – Penrith Panthers 36 def. New Zealand Warriors 4 at Panthers Stadium
2017 – Penrith Panthers 34 def. New Zealand Warriors 22 at Mt Smart Stadium
2017 – Penrith Panthers 36 def. New Zealand Warriors 28 at Panthers Stadium
2016 – New Zealand Warriors 20 def. Penrith Panthers 16 at Mt Smart Stadium
Before New Zealand’s comprehensive win at the back end of the season, the Panthers had managed to notch three straight wins against their rivals from across the ditch but the nature of the 36-16 hammering will not sit well.
Coach Cameron Ciraldo is still finding his feet at NRL level and he’ll want to set things right quickly against Stephen Kearney and the Warriors and guide his young Penrith side into the next week of finals football.
This will be the 42nd meeting between the Warriors and the Panthers. Currently, the Panthers hold a 23-17 edge while the pair played out an entertaining 32-32 draw way back in 2009.
|Penrith Panthers||New Zealand Warriors|
|1||Dallin Watene-Zelezniak||Roger Tuivasa-Sheck|
|2||Josh Mansour||David Fusitua|
|3||Waqa Blake||Peta Hiku|
|4||Tyrone Peachey||Solomone Kata|
|5||Christian Crichton||Ken Maumalo|
|6||James Maloney||Blake Green|
|7||Nathan Cleary||Shaun Johnson|
|8||Trent Merrin||James Gavet|
|9||Sione Katoa||Isaac Luke|
|10||Reagan Campbell-Gillard||Agnatius Paasi|
|11||Viliame Kikau||Adam Blair|
|12||Isaah Yeo||Tohu Harris|
|13||James Fisher-Harris||Simon Mannering|
|14||Tyrone May||Jazz Tevaga|
|15||Moses Leota||Isaiah Papali’i|
|16||Corey Harawira-Naera||Bunty Afoa|
|17||James Tamou||Gerard Beale|
|18||Wayde Egan||Leivaha Pulu|
|19||Jack Hetherington||Mason Lino|
|20||Tyrone Phillips||Chris Satae|
|21||Kaide Ellis||Karl Lawton|
The facts that matter
It might be away from the comfortable confines of Panthers Stadium, but the Panthers will act as the nominal host this Saturday evening at ANZ Stadium and while it’s more than a 20 minute train ride (sorry Gus!), Penrith fans have shown in recent years they’re prepared to pack up and travel when it comes to finals footy on the road.
If they can put together a big, loud, vociferous support at the former Olympic venue, the Panthers will back themselves to ride a big wave of emotion to a much-needed win and put their recent loss to the Kiwi side back in the history books.
Penrith enter the finals for the third season in a row and for the fourth time in their last five seasons, so good things are building, however slowly, at the foot of the mountains but the Panthers are starting to reach the point where they need tangible success to be happy with their progress.
The ‘Phil Gould’ era at Penrith has been a success by almost any barometer, but the need to bank the big trophy looms as the elusive target out west.
A mixed bag of results against the Warriors in 2018 means there are plenty of question marks on how Penrith will approach this one, but there’s every reason to believe they’ll stick to much the same script they have since Anthony Griffin was handed his marching orders.
Experts everywhere marked the Panthers a spent force after their crushing defeat in Auckland, but a drought-breaking win last week against the Melbourne Storm will have renewed some confidence and given veteran playmaker James Maloney a chance to get some miles in his legs after a brief stint off the field through injury.
Back-rower Corey Harawira-Naera signed a contract with the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and will leave the club at the end of the season but he returns from concussion to take the place of Jack Hetherington on the bench
Corey Harawira-Naera (concussion) returns on the bench in place of Jack Hetherington.
New Zealand Warriors
Tipped by many to be languishing amongst the league’s nether reaches by many before a ball was kicked this season, the Warriors spent much of the year defying the odds and punching well above their weight as their star-studded spine started showing signs it had clicked.
The Kiwi side ended their season with back-to-back wins over the Panthers and Raiders, the last of which was the perfect send-off for 300+ game veteran Simon Mannering, but a Round 23 loss to the Bulldogs showed the downside of Warriors-brand football, a disappointing loss can strike when you least expect it.
The Warriors were embarrassed earlier in the season when they lost 36-4 to a Penrith side which was missing many of their key stars. Youngster Jarome Luai was the star of the night and made plenty of headlines, but there’s unlikely to be any surprise heroes on the finals stage this weekend.
Adam Blair has been one of the revelations of the 2018 NRL season since making the switch from the Brisbane Broncos. The veteran forward has often been accused of being lazy or going missing for large chunks of games, but along with the likes of Isaac Luke he has been amongst New Zealand’s best and most consistent players in this campaign.
This Saturday night will also represent the Warrior’s first finals campaign since the 2011 season when they made a fairytale run to the Grand Final only to lose to the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles. New Zealand were coached by Ivan Cleary that day and will face his son and former club ball boy Nathan Cleary at ANZ Stadium this week.
Speed and enthusiasm will hold the key for the Warriors. Players like David Fusitu’a and Solomone Kata have enjoyed plenty of space and opportunity on the flanks, but they’ll be starved of those chances if their forward pack is intimidated by the big Penrith pack or playmakers Shaun Johnson, Blake Green and Isaac Luke are limited in trying to build on a platform set by the big boppers.
Blake Green returns in the halves alongside Shaun Johnson after spending time out with a calf injury. Green replaces Mason Lino who has been impressive this year. James Gavet comes into the starting side at prop which sees Bunty Afoa relegated to the bench and Leivaha Pulu amongst the reserves.
Centre Gerard Beale is on the bench in place of Chris Satae who is also on the reserves list.
How do you hope to pick on the form of two sides notorious for throwing the form guide out the window? Both Penrith and the Warriors have a history of throwing up a disappointing performance when expectations are high and pulling off the sublime or the sensational when the chips are down and they’ve been written off.
Home advantage could play a big part in this one. While the Panthers aren’t hosting this one at their traditional base on Mulgoa Road, they’ll rely on bus-loads of rabid fans to create a big atmosphere in the former Olympic venue but that’s no guarantee of a result in this day and age.
The Warriors were supremely impressive when they trampled Penrith a fortnight ago and they’ll set out with a similar approach on Saturday night.
The form of the two pairs of halves will dictate this one. That said, I’ll take Penrith by a narrow, narrow margin. Penrith by 2 points.
Who will advance from the first Elimination Final and who will be packing up and heading home empty-handed? Let us know in the comments and poll below.
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