Whoever was in charge of the 2010 schedule should be getting a nice basket of Easter eggs any time now. It’ll be addressed from Penrith boss Mick Leary, whose team hosts their season-opener for the first time since 2004.
Coincidentally, that was the last year the penny Panthers cracked the finals – the current longest absence of any NRL club – and it’s just the kind of omen they need to have any hope in 2010.
But first up are the out-of-town Raiders, who couldn’t be more under-rated if they had won three wooden spoons in a row. Penrith sure is home to the biggest rugby league nursery on earth, but something’s in the air of the nation’s capital at the moment because the hottest young talent is on show in Canberra, where five of the seven games the Raiders won were played last year.
Only problem is that’s not where this week’s game is. The party is out at CUA stadium, where the Panthers held a 7-4 (and one draw) record in 2009. And it doesn’t really matter where Canberra play, because they perform on the road like a second-rate circus troupe – last year they lost all but two matches away from home.
Still, let’s hope both sides can at least recognise their own jerseys, because there’s quite a bit of history amongst the squads. New Panthers, centre Adrian Purtell and hitman Nigel Plum (on an extended bench… and he really does look like a hitman!) switched camps over the summer, joining former Raider Nathan Smith and coach Matt Elliott at the foot of the mountains, while one of Canberra’s few acquisitions included journeyman Danny Galea, who spent five years with his junior club Penrith before heading to the Tigers and has now pledged his allegiance to David Furner.
Nevertheless, if there’s a good time to play a young and enthusiastic outfit such as Canberra, now’s as good as ever with rising star Justin Carney and NSW reps Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Joel Monaghan all out with injury, severely hampering their chances.
Penrith have problems of their own, with gun five-eighth Wade Graham and destructive forward Daine Laurie out with shoulder and toe problems respectively.
Watch out Panthers: The obvious weapons in the Canberra line-up are one-time NSW five-eighth Terry Campese and the elusive Josh Dugan. The entire Green Machine revolves around their peach of a playmaker and while 2009 wasn’t his best year, fans will always remember how he single-handedly pulled his team to the finals two years ago.
Dugan, on the other hand, is an absolute star in the making (if he isn’t already) and is one of the most dangerous kick-returners in the game. He averaged more metres (192) than the rugby league’s man of the moment Jarryd Hayne (172) in 2009 and much more will be expected of his second year.
The interesting stat is that the Raiders had more half-breaks than any other team in the competition (48) last year, and if any of their support runners can get on the end of these, Penrith could be in a lot of trouble.
Watch out Raiders: Two words: Michael Jennings. This out-and-out superstar has established himself as one of the most electrifying talents in the game today. Blessed with the breathtaking ability to make Speedy Gonzalez look like Porky Pig in defence, ‘Jenko’ will be Penrith’s go-to man all year.
When the Panthers needed a spark last year, Jennings delivered and was the only Panther to hit double digits in line-breaks (22) and tries (17). His left-side combination with enigmatic second-rower Frank Pritchard proved to be the most formidable last year, Penrith scoring 30 tries on that part of the field – more than any other team in the NRL.
Fill-in centre Joel Thompson could well be in for the worst night of his life if Penrith can isolate the oft-used forward.
Where it will be won: With heavy rain and storms predicted for the opening night of the year, ball handling is the priority in this clash. And this is where the Raiders hold the advantage. In 2009, only the Broncos and the Dragons made fewer errors (279), while the Panthers were one of the worst (302) in the comp. This could make the match closer than it should be, but with experienced forwards in Petero Civoniceva, Trent Waterhouse, Pritchard and Luke Lewis, Penrith have enough experience to guide them home.
The history: Played 55; Penrith 27, Canberra 27, drawn 1. Before last year, the Raiders had beaten Penrith five of the past six games, but the Panthers took out both matches in 2009 to square the overall ledger.
Penrith supporters may still be hurting from the club’s record 74-12 loss at Canberra Stadium two years ago.
Conclusion: The Raiders were always going to be up against it having to play away from home, but the fact that three of their strike players are out makes their task a lot more difficult.
Penrith are a side at almost full strength and in form, having comprehensively won both of their trials in the pre-season. Unfortunately for Canberra, the odds are stacked against them and only the forecast of heavy rain saves them from an opening night demolition.
Penrith by 10.
Match officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Alan Shortall; Sideline officials – Daniel Eastwood and Luke Phillips; Video Referee – Russel Smith
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – live from 7:30pm.