Panthers v Bulldogs
It only seems like yesterday, but by the time the season kicks off for these two teams on Sunday it will have been 162 days from the day the Bulldogs ended Penrith's fairytale run in the 2014 NRL finals series.
But that just means the mountain men have had a long time to stew on that loss.
On Channel Nine's new live timeslot at 4pm (AEDT), last year's grand finalists re-acquaint themselves with the competition surprise packets they beat to get there, and we're all the better off for it.
The match-up means it won't take long to sort out whether the Panthers were merely one-season wonders. They'll look just a tad different from the team that survived a gauntlet without key men Peter Wallace, Bryce Cartwright, Tyrone Peachey and Elijah Taylor. So logically, they'll be better – but we all know this game is far from a logical sport.
Take the Bulldogs, for example. Nothing makes sense when props James Graham and Aidan Tolman are throwing cut-out passes and five-eighth Josh Reynolds is making all the big hits. Nonetheless, it'll be interesting to see how the Bulldogs bounce back from their second grand final defeat in three years, and whether being the best winger in the game makes Brett Morris a quality fullback.
Injuries have already claimed two Panthers before Round 1, with Josh Mansour and Nigel Plum both unavailable for coach Ivan Cleary. Their spots have been taken by rookies George Jennings and Reagan Campbell-Gillard.
There are no such issues for the Bulldogs, who kick off this campaign with a clean bill of health.
Watch Out Panthers: They call them the Panthers Pack, but the truth is they pale in comparison to the size of Belmore's Bulldogs. On paper, the Penrith forwards line-up reads more like a delightful dessert menu when compared to the heavy artillery Canterbury-Bankstown has in store – particularly when you get to a bench giving up a conservative 50 kilograms to a four-headed monster in Sam Kasiano, David Klemmer, Frank Pritchard and Tim Browne. It's a mystery how assistant coach Jim Dymock has any room left to sit down during the game, Laurie Daley-Phil Gould in Origin style. Add in the fact that Penrith's bash brothers Nigel Plum and Adam Docker are missing from the midfield and you just wonder how on earth they'll win the ruck.
Watch Out Bulldogs: What the Panther Pride lack in size, they make up for with a skill set that is the envy of many. If last year's grand finalists will predictably plan for an assault up the guts, then the surprise packets of 2014 will funnel their forays down the flanks, where benchwarmers Tyrone Peachey and Bryce Cartwright can wreak supreme havoc with their ball play. If the Bulldogs' bevy of big men have any lead in their boots come Sunday afternoon – and the weatherman's prediction of a muggy 30-degree day could ensure that – then you can bet the Panthers will use the entire width of the field to expose them.
Key Match-Up: Matt Moylan v Brett Morris. The fullback with the fast hands versus the fullback with the fast feet. They enter the season with reasonable question marks: Will the Prince of Penrith break down after a breakout year? And will the best winger of the game prove that he can run more lines than just along the sideline? One thing we do know is that they're both proven match-winners, and it's not unlikely for either to come up with the clutch play at the death on Sunday.
The History: Played 86; Panthers 34, Bulldogs 49, drawn 3. Three times these two sides met last season, and twice Penrith's team song echoed from the mountains, especially when Moylan nailed a conversion after the siren in Round 3 last season. But the Kennel had the last laugh, winning when it mattered most in the preliminary final and thwarting the Panthers' fairytale run through September. So they've got a bit of history, these two. We eagerly await the next chapter.
What Are The Odds: Panthers $1.95, Bulldogs $1.85. These teams can't be split with the punters and virtually even in the betting. Brett Morris has been leading the race for first tryscorer.
Match Officials: Referee – Ben Cummins; Assistant Referee – Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials; Grant Atkins & Brett Suttor; Video referees – Shayne Hayne & Henry Perenara.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 3:30pm (AEDT).
The Way We See It: Normally when two even teams like these ones face off, you bravely tip the home team to inch home in a nail-biter. But bravado goes out the window when you read out that Bulldogs pack – if Graham was screaming at Mitch Brown when he ***wasn't captain, could you imagine the poor bloke who could let him down now? And if we hadn't said so enough, that four-headed benchwarmer is downright scary. Bulldogs by 10.