Panthers v Warriors
Sunday 3.55pm (AEST)
The chocolate soldiers and the dark horses. The second best team in the competition up against the giant killers. Top four mainstays up against the sixth-placed bolters. Hold onto your seats, buckle up your belts and wind up the windows because this Sunday is going to be one hell of a ride.
Lining up in their third grand final in four years, the Warriors will be aiming to keep their undefeated record in the decider intact. If they can pull off an upset win against one of the most exciting teams in Australian rugby league, the New Zealanders will bag a hat-trick of premierships over the space of four seasons – establishing a dynasty in the process.
But their task is far from a cake walk. In fact it makes climbing Everest look like a hillside stroll on a Sunday afternoon in November.
The Warriors are facing off against a Penrith side that has lost only seven games all year.
Despite a narrow loss to their Tasman rivals early in the season, Penrith's combined efforts against the Warriors this year amounts to a 64-52 score line. They have scored more points this season and conceded fewer.
There is no doubting the fact that New Zealand's third grand final is also shaping as their most gruelling.
Panthers' Road To Glory: Though their heartland is further west than any other Sydney team, Penrith's journey to the big one has been made on the green, green grass of Moore Park. In the first week of the finals series they smashed the Roosters 48-22 at Allianz Stadium to earn a fortnight's rest. Then last Saturday, at the same venue, they disposed of minor premiers and juggernauts Canberra in an ominous 36-20 drubbing.
Warriors' Road To Glory: New Zealand's trip through September has been hard fought and stressful at times and mind-blowingly ruthless at others. In a tight elimination final they beat the Rabbitohs 20-18 at ANZ Stadium, they then pulverised the Roosters 58-6 at Allianz Stadium before booking a ticket to the grand final with a big 54-38 win over the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium last week.
Head To Head in 2013: The Warriors defeated the Panthers 38-32 at Centrebet Stadium in Round 10 before the Panthers extracted revenge with a comprehensive 32-14 victory at Mt Smart Stadium in Round 23.
Watch Out Warriors: The Panthers' rear guard is without doubt the strongest in the Holden Cup. Fullback Kieran Moss and wingers Dallin Watene Zelezniak and George Jennings have been a formidable trio out back, dazzling the competition with try-scoring nous and attacking flair. Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Holden Cup player of the year Bryce Cartwright are the men to watch up front, capable of powering through the tightest of defensive walls.
Watch Out Panthers: As they have shown over recent weeks, the Warriors are capable of competing with the clock when it comes to point-scoring. In their past two games the Warriors have scored 112 points, thumping top four sides the Bulldogs and Roosters in the process. Halfback Mason Lino and captain and lock David Bhana are the two most obvious match winners in the Warriors side and will need to be on song to penetrate the best defence in the competition.
The Verdict: In what promises to be an epic battle between two exciting, thrill-a-minute sides, Sunday will be decided on defensive fortitude. Both teams are capable of turning on points from anywhere on the field, what remains to be seen is who can turn off the tap with equal ease. On balance and season form, the Panthers boast better defensive credentials. But the Warriors have a happy knack of clicking into gear for the final game of the season - a match they have never lost.
Tip: Warriors by 12 points.