Penrith admit they will be forced to up the ante in Saturday’s NRL semi-final following the surprise inclusion of of Canberra strike weapons Josh Hodgson and Blake Austin.
Hodgson had been rated a slim chance to play in the sudden-death showdown at GIO Stadium after suffering ligament damage and bone bruising in his left ankle last weekend against Cronulla.
But the superstar hooker was given the green light on Friday afternoon, having made a miraculous recovery to complete the Raiders’ captain’s run.
The England international spent three full days getting treatment by club physios and did not train earlier in the week with the team.
“I am a bit surprised but, at the same time, excited,” Hodgson said.
“These are the games you want to play. This is why you play rugby league – to play on the big stage in the big games.
“It’s going to be tough but we are aiming to make it a lot tougher for them.”
Five-eighth Austin also came through the team’s final training session unscathed to be fit to play for the first time since having surgery last month on a broken hand.
“I can’t wait to get out there and do my part for the team and, hopefully, we can get the win,” Austin said.
“We are all pretty excited and like our chances. If we stick at what we need to do, we are going to be well and truly in the game.”
Coach Anthony Griffin said the Panthers had prepared as though Hodgson was going to play, given his importance to the Raiders.
“He’s a massive threat,” Griffin said.
“He runs a lot of their attack out of dummy-half, he’s got a great kicking game and he’s a real smart player.
“(He’s) the brains of the operation and they really missed him when he wasn’t there last week in the last 30 minutes (against Cronulla).
“We’ve been concentrating really hard and watched a lot of vision of him this week. I’ve got no doubt he’ll be out to have a great game.”
Griffin said the ferocity of finals football would test the talented No.9, suggesting the Panthers wouldn’t go easy on him.
“I’m sure they wouldn’t have risked him unless he was close to fully fit, so it’s game on,” he said.
Griffin also rated Austin a “massive in” for the Raiders, looking to end their record as the only team in the NRL era to not reach a preliminary final.
The playmaker is a great runner of the football and hard to contain.
“It just means they’ve got a lot more to their attack than what they’ve had the last few weeks … and we’re going to have to be a level up on last week to be able to go with them,” he said.
The winner of Saturday’s clash will face Melbourne at AAMI Park next weekend to play for a spot in the grand final.
STATS THAT MATTER: CANBERRA V PENRITH:
* The Raiders have won five of seven finals matches against the Panthers, including the past three
* Penrith have never won a final outside Sydney, with both losses coming in Canberra
* Since round 20, they have been – by far – the best two attacking teams in the competition, averaging the most points and linebreaks per game