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The finals are upon us and we have four matches to kick of the preliminary finals campaign and on paper, the home side in every match bar the Panthers will be at short odds to progress deeper into the finals but from what I can remember, every year the finals produce some stunning upsets.
In 2000, the Eels toppled the Roosters, in 2003 the sixth placed Warriors toppled the third placed Bulldogs and the fifth placed Storm knocked off the fourth placed Raiders and all were considered upsets. So while us armchair critics do our best to sound like a rugby league version of a Rhodes Scholar, don’t discount the possibility of at least one upset in the opening round.
Tonight, we get a live call of the finals for the first time in years with St George Illawarra traveling to Penrith to take on the Panthers, who have been hit with an injury curse at the wrong time of the year. Penrith have lost Luke Lewis, Tony Puletua and Joe Gulavao from tonight’s match and to take three representative players out of a team is really going to hurt. St George Illawarra enter the finals fully rested and at full strength bar Mark Gasnier and they are the team to fear. The Dragons depth is amazing as they have every position covered twice over with Luke Bailey starting from the bench.
Had the Panthers been at full strength, this game would have been one of the highlights of the finals series but with three players out for the Panthers, the pendulum has shifted heavily in favour of the Dragons, who after five years are finally starting to live up their reputation as one of the game’s strongest clubs.
Make no mistake, the Panthers still have the strike power to win the game and the premiership, but their defensive record this year has been one of the poorest of all this years finalists. To win the game players like Joel Clinton, Martin Lang and Trent Waterhouse need to keep the Panthers rolling forward to shut down the Dragons explosive backline.
Today’s Daily Telegraph highlighted the defensive lapses of Amos Roberts and Preston Campbell and this is an area Nathan Brown is sure to exploit with Jason Ryles, Brent Kite and Lance Thompson. Craig Gower and Ryan Girdler are the key players for the Panthers point scoring machine to run smoothly but with Girdler’s suspect hamstring, the workload will sit squarely on the shoulders of Craig Gower. He is certainly up to the task but can he single handedly lead the Panthers through to the next round of the finals because if results were to go against the Panthers however unlikely it may seem now, the Panthers would face the possibility of being eliminated in the first week of the finals.
John Lang has done a good job overall getting the Panthers back to the finals when many concluded the 2004 Panthers may be suffering a premiership hangover and whilst the Panthers are not the dominant force of 2003, they still made the top four with an increased injury toll and representative season.
Nathan Brown has done an equally impressive job with the Dragons, who missed the finals in 2003 but look to give the premiership a real shake in 2004.