Qualifying Final 1
Roosters v Panthers
Saturday, 5.50pm (AEST)
One team is on course to defy 20 years of rugby league history and win back-to-back premierships, while the other crew are ignoring basic sporting physics by drinking from the cup of success with half their first-choice line-up sitting helplessly in the grandstand.
They've taken far different roads to Allianz Stadium in September, but it's no wonder the Roosters and Panthers flew all the way to the top of the NRL penthouse at the end of 26 weeks.
Now they're just 80 minutes away from taking their place in a grand final qualifier.
The reigning premiers withstood the ultimate NRL challenge, patiently grinding their way back to pole position despite wearing the extra weight of those premiership rings.
They started the season slowly, dropping as low as 11th almost a third of the way into the new year before stealing top spot for the first time this year after last week's resounding 22-18 final round victory over the Rabbitohs and walking away with their second JJ Giltinan shield in as many years.
Even more impressive was how they did it without key engineer Jake Friend who, after being hospitalised with a life-threatening chest issue, returned to training this week in a bid to take part in the finals.
Only a divine miracle will get the tough dummy-half on the field by Sunday, an unlikely reprieve that won't be extended to suspended prop Dylan Napa. The second-year pro was at first ruled guilty of a shoulder charge by the NRL judiciary on Tuesday night, but then appealed the four-week ban and had it downgraded to two.
Queensland representative Aidan Guerra didn't even bother challenging his chicken wing charge, taking the one-game suspension, with his place in the side taken by big man Kane Evans. Napa could be replaced by 18th man Heath L'Estrange, although coach Trent Robinson already has a utility in the form of rookie Jackson Hastings and could opt for an extra forward.
The Panthers, on the other hand, made short work of a disappointing Warriors side that tossed their finals invite down the toilet last week and gift-wrapped the mountain men their top four spot.
Penrith's bubble had somewhat burst after being handed business-end lessons by heavyweights Melbourne and then Manly, but the stubborn Panthers bounced back with all the class of a team with premiership ambitions.
For a ridiculous ninth week in a row, however, their casualty ward snared another body in the shape of Rabbitohs-bound prop Tim Grant, who has likely played his final game for the club after picking up a leg injury against the Warriors.
His place will be taken by the return of reliable frontman Jeremy Latimore from suspension, the only change from last week's 17.
Watch Out Roosters: Penrith spark Lewis Brown has been a revelation off their bench, replacing the energy brought by previous supersub Tyrone Peachey, who was enjoying a breakout season before tearing his pec mid-season. Keep an eye out for Brown's signature scoots out of dummy-half, making full use of his low centre of gravity to eke out half his average 90 metres a game.
Watch Out Panthers: We get the feeling exiting superstar Sonny Bill Williams has been playing well within himself, waiting patiently for the right team to go super saiyan on. The union-bound specimen made an easy 119m last week from 22 touches last week, both month-high numbers. But the big stage is made for the big names, and Sunday could be the perfect platform for him to bust out with the type of game that doubles his average output.
Plays To Watch: The tip sheet for the Roosters in attack comes with an obvious Point One: Don't run at bash brothers Nigel Plum or (the currently suspended) Adam Docker. But you can now add a third 'sibling' to the mix.
Penrith's up-and-in defence now features the sweetly timed hits of Jamal Idris, whose bone-jarring shutdowns of sweeping movements often end in a collective moan of whiplashes. Just ask Cooper Cronk and Thomas Leuluai.
For the Tricolours, it kind of goes without saying that Pearce's confidence has now reached orbital levels, and we've got the cosmic-like numbers to prove it. Eight times this year the Roosters halfback has run the ball at least 64m, and four of them have come over the past six weeks. You can tell a halfback's confidence levels by the amount of times he runs the ball, and Pearce is doing it in bucketloads right now.
Where It Will Be Won: In the Roosters' red zone. The Chooks are renowned as ardent defenders of their own try line, evidenced by the 66 tries they've given up this year (second fewest in the NRL), despite conceding the fourth most penalties in the competition. If Penrith can unlock the great wall of Bondi and apply scoreboard pressure on the premiership favourites as the game goes on, then we'll find out how much poise these surprise packets really do have.
The History: Played 84; Sydney 44, Penrith 37, drawn 3. The Roosters' convincing 32-12 victory over Penrith extended their winning streak over the mountain men to three with a cumulative score of 102-24. That's an average scoreline of 34-8, which is about as dominant as a Jamal Idris bear hug. However it's even more one-sided at Allianz Stadium, where the home side have taken the spoils in six of the past seven contests.
What Are The Odds:
The $1.33 that Sportsbet offered didn’t last long as punters jumped all over it. Roosters have been heavily backed to win by 13 points or more, and appear to be the punters best bet for week one of the finals. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee – Jared Maxwell; Assistant Referee – Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Michael Wise; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Ben Galea.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: We've seen enough now of the Panthers to accept that they've arrived as a finals force. But we just can't see them doing it against the defending champs on their home patch. We've ruled out a blowout – it's only happened a couple of times to the mountain men this year – but the Tricolours have both the experience and the talent to absorb Penrith's best shot and then strike a killer blow. Roosters by eight points.