Panthers rematch 'vital', say improved Dragons
Gareth Widdop says the Dragons are well aware of just how much goes on the line in Sunday's showdown with the Panthers, and just how far they have come in the two months since they last clashed with this season's surprise packets.
With St George Illawarra currently on 22 points, and their -55 points differential putting them at the wrong end of the mid-table pack of teams clambering for finals spots, a loss at WIN Stadium would essentially make their final four games of the season must-win affairs.
Back when the Panthers hosted the Dragons in Round 14, an unlikely finals berth was the furthest thing from the red and white agenda. The club was still reeling from the sacking of coach Steve Price, and the week before had recorded just their second win in nine games, a 30-0 defeat of an injury-ravaged Sharks outfit rooted to the bottom of the NRL ladder.
Under new caretaker coach Paul McGregor, the Dragons pushed the then top-of-the-table Panthers in a hard fought 18-14 defeat which came without the services of Origin stars Brett Morris, Josh Dugan and Trent Merrin.
The Dragons head into Sunday's rematch having won four of their past six – with the two losses coming against competition heavyweights Manly and Roosters – and Widdop is adamant his side will pose a far greater test to Penrith this time around.
"We were a completely different football team then to what we are now," Widdop says.
"We've improved in a lot of areas of our game, and still need to improve but since we played at Penrith last time – and we were unlucky to not get the win there – we've improved as a group.
"We've got a lot more confidence in the way we play and getting the little things right in games which we weren't doing back then.
"This week's vital. If we lose this weekend it's going to make it extremely tough to make the finals.
"But if we can get the win we're right back in the mix again. We need a good week of training, and it's a very important game in the context of this season."
The Panthers will field a markedly different line-up themselves as they travel to a ground they have won at just once in the nine games they have played in 23 years against both the joint-venture club and previous tenants Illawarra.
Penrith, who currently sit third on the ladder with 28 points, will be without prop Brent Kite (pec), workhorse Elijah Taylor (knee) and gun youngster Bryce Cartwright (ankle), with all three joining skipper Peter Wallace, Tyrone Peachey and Isaac John on the Panthers long term injury list, but Merrin is adamant the Dragons won't be taking the mountain men lightly.
"The Panthers might have a few injuries but we're definitely not underestimating their form; they are still going to be a tough, classy team," Merrin says.
"If anything they are going to step up more because they have those players out. We're expecting a tough game but we're looking forward to playing at home."
The Blues prop will continue his return from the dislocated shoulder he sustained in Origin III via the bench as he has done in the past two weeks, and praised the depth in the Dragons pack that has allowed him to do so.
"It's been good to get off the bench over the past couple of weeks; after my shoulder injury it's something I need to work back into, and it gives an opportunity for Jack de Bellin to have some time out there on the field and get some experience," Merrin says.
"It's awesome to have so much depth in the forward pack with a few of the boys almost fit enough to get out there again.
"At the beginning of the season we weren't doing very well in that area but it's great that we are able to turn the tables and show everyone what we're capable of.
"We took a lot of confidence out of the Roosters game; they have one of the toughest and biggest packs in the competition so we knew they were going to put us to the test."