Penrith’s generation next have shocked and entertained all comers this NRL season but now face their sternest test – finals footy.
The Panthers will climb into sixth with a win over Manly in their last-round fixture at Pepper Stadium on Sunday night however it matters little – they will face Canterbury at ANZ Stadium in week one of the finals regardless.
After six wins in their past seven including four on the trot, the black cats are shaping as the competition’s dark horse.
Most sides don’t know what to make of them – given their penchant for second phase play (they lead the league for offloads and third in tackle busts).
However their ability to handle finals footy remains an unknown quantity.
Of the 17-man squad which will take on the Sea Eagles, just four remain from their last finals appearance against Canterbury in 2014 – Matt Moylan, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Josh Mansour and Jeremy Latimore.
While the likes of Peter Wallace and Trent Merrin add plenty of experience, their ability to handle sudden death is yet to be seen, especially for the likes of young key-position players Nathan Cleary and Bryce Cartwright.
“We’ve been in pretty good form, last week was a really intense game, it was like a final against the Titans,” coach Anthony Griffin said.
“We’ve got to treat tomorrow night like a final because it carries a lot of weight for us.
“If we can have a really good 80 minutes tomorrow night the players will have had a good month of football which would prepare them well for what’s to come.”
Unless Manly (13th, 8-15) can muster a victory against the Panthers, 2016 will go down as their second-least successful year since 1965 – only behind 2003 when they won just three games.
While a summer of soul-searching awaits the Sea Eagles, the Panthers are facing a bright future.
“I came here with a really open mind and didn’t have any expectations,” Griffin said.
“It was a whole new list and for them I was a new coach.
“It wasn’t a matter of where we finished or where we might get to, it’s just trying to create something we can build on for the future.”
STATS THAT MATTER
* Penrith has won five of its past six matches against Manly, including a 20-point comeback in round 14.
* Sixteen of Penrith’s 23 matches this season have been decided by eight points or less.
* Manly’s 44 points conceded against Melbourne was its worst defensive performance of the year and the ninth time they have conceded 30 points or more this season.
Source: Fox Sports Stats