Carting it up with Stevo

Canberra and Penrith doing themselves proud

I was talking with a mate the other day that?s had little to celebrate in the last few years. See he?s a Raiders fan. He was telling me about a conversation he had had with another mate who?s a Tigers man. Apparently the conversation went along the lines of the Tigers man bagging the Raider for the poor prospects of his team this year. It was about this time the Raider suggested the Tiger looked at the NRL ladder.

While the Dragons, Roosters and Broncos of the world seem to soak up the far majority of the weekly Rugby League press, a few NRL teams have been quietly building a platform to push for a finals spot come September. Penrith and Canberra currently sit 11th and 12th on the ladder respectively, which sounds pretty underwhelming until you consider that they are on equal points with the Roosters and the Tigers. They also sit two points out of the top eight, and only one win away from the likes of St George-Illawarra, Manly and Cronulla. This is from two teams that only gained any pre-season comments when league experts were discussing the potential wooden spoon recipients.

While it?s not quite time to put the champagne on ice, these teams are winning consistently and have a real hope of reckoning in finals football. Think of it this way, both the Panthers and the Raiders have won 5 games so far this season. To make the finals last season teams had to win 12 games. By those calculations Penrith and Canberra may only have to win 7 out of their next 13 games to qualify for finals football. To put that into perspective the Tigers had also won 5 games at this point of the season last year.

Either way, the performances of the Panthers and Raiders this season has proven two things: that teams don?t always live and die by their off season signings, and that sometimes clubs know a lot more about their roster than we give them credit for.

The Canberra and Penrith administrators and coaching staff must be congratulated as much as the players. For whatever reasons last season neither team had the ability to throw money at high profile signings, or in the Panthers case, even retain much of their current squad. Instead both teams bought astutely and relied on the fact that their long term development plans will ensure their teams are competitive. Canberra?s bargain signing, Thom Leroyd-Lahrs, is set to emerge as the buy of the year, while it also may be the year young Todd Carney lives up to his potential. At Penrith its back to the future (or back to 2003 at least). Campbell and Wesser are firing, a bunch of young guns are coming through, one giant Kiwi (Galuvao) has been replaced by another (Pritchard) and Gower is leading the way admirably.

Importantly for their prospects, both teams are playing great footy. Both played in cliff-hangers on the weekend against quality opposition. The hits were hard, the tries spectacular. Canberra?s 2006 victories have included Manly, Parramatta and North Queensland, while the Panthers have beaten Canterbury, St George-Illawarra and Parramatta (twice!). This is quite a list of scalps for less than half the season.

Of course this all may come to nothing by seasons end, but the fact that both of these teams remain competitive ensures the NRL continues to be unpredictable and exciting (not to mention a pain for anyone in a tipping comp.). Who knows it may not be too long before we see another Canberra-Penrith Grand Final. Now that would be sweet!