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The first NRL Grand Final qualifier for 2004 kicks-off at Aussie Stadium on Saturday night in what should be a real test of credibility for both teams.
The Panthers, reigning Premiers yet slight underdogs for this game, come off a week's rest after putting away the Dragons in their opening semi-final with a freakish 17-minute blitz that saw them bolt to a 24-point lead. Some questions were raised that night out at Penrith Park, given the fact that the victory was reduced to a margin of 1 point. But with the home team facing a significant injury toll they did well to defeat St George Illawarra and the week off will have done them the world of good.
The Bulldogs are in a different boat. After an early hiccup against the giant-killing Cowboys, they settled back into a familiar routine last week when they systematically dismantled a Storm outfit that struggled to find any cohesion on the paddock. That victory has put them firmly back in the reckoning for this season's premiership, with the Bulldogs once again circling the playground like a school bully looking for someone to beat up.
Both teams are now almost at full strength. Penrith three-quarter Luke Lewis has pulled out with a shoulder injury, but should be right if they make the big one. And whilst Canterbury can choose from their full squad, there's a big cloud over five-eighth Braith Anasta's (pictured) fitness with a sternum injury. If he does take the field, there is little doubt he'll be tested early. Reni Maitua and Jonathan Thurston are on the bench to cover if required.
This brings us to the battle in the middle of the park. Both sides boast strong packs with ten of the twelve representing state or country at some stage. The contest between O'Meley and Price of the Bulldogs and Clinton and Lang of the Panthers should be an absorbing one. Lang, renown for the disrespect of his own head, should once again be relentless in his attempts to power towards the advantage line. O'Meley, bearing a striking resemblance to a fictional cartoon character, will be only too happy to accommodate the continuation of this disrespect.
With that kind of artillery in the centre of the field it comes as no surprise that the two number seven's will decide the fate of this clash. Craig Gower and Brent Sherwin are two of the classiest halfback's running around in the world. But unlike most with that tag, both men enjoy getting amongst the dirty work like tackling, jumping on loose balls and copping the occasional belting from a forward.
Gower will look to capitalise on the go-forward of his big men in order to distribute the ball to his unpredictable and nimble-footed five-eighth Preston Campbell. This has worked well for them in the past, and with the pace they possess out wide should cause a few headaches for the Doggies.
In contrast, Sherwin's deft kicking is a rare feature in the modern game, with some unnatural bounces turning up results in last week's game. Combined with the ever-reliable backup of his outside men, Penrith may find themselves at sixes and sevens throughout the match.
This first qualifying final has a real smell of September about it. It's a shame that one team will bow out of the race for this year's Holy Grail, but a quick look across the team guide and it becomes apparent that this will be one of the year's best games.
PENRITH v CANTERBURY at Aussie Stadium at 7.35pm (AEDT)
PANTHERS: Rhys Wesser, Amos Roberts, Ryan Girdler, Paul Whatuira, Luke Rooney, Preston Campbell, Craig Gower (c), Joel Clinton, Luke Priddis, Martin Lang, Joe Galuvao, Tony Puletua, Trent Waterhouse. Interchange: Shane Rodney, Danny Galea, Richard Fa'aoso, Frank Puletua, Ben Pomeroy (one to be ommitted).
BULLDOGS: Luke Patten, Hazem El Masri, Ben Harris, Willie Tonga, Matt Utai, Braith Anasta, Brent Sherwin, Mark O'Meley, Adam Perry, Steve Price (c), Willie Mason, Andrew Ryan, Tony Grimaldi. Interchange: Reni Maitua, Corey Hughes, Roy Asotasi, Sonny Bill Williams, Jonathan Thurston (one to be omitted).
Club History as at 2004 Penrith: Played 25, Won 16, Lost 9 (Points for: 703, Points against: 597) Bulldogs: Played 26, Won 20, Lost 6 (Points for: 825, Points against: 539) Head to head: Played 67, Bulldogs 41, Penrith 23, Drawn 3.
Previous clashes in 2004: Bulldogs 46 defeated Penrith 20 at Telstra Stadium (round 21) Penrith 40 defeated Bulldogs 29 at Penrith Stadium (round 12)