Penrith young guns knew what was coming
Despite the bulk of their team never having played an NRL finals game before, Penrith's impressive performance against the seasoned Bulldogs came because they were ready for what was coming.
That was the view of a bruised but happy playing group at a team recovery session on Monday morning following their emphatic 28-12 win over Des Hasler's men.
With due respect to the likes of an injury-ravaged Sea Eagles, inconsistent Wests Tigers as well as the bottom-two finishing Roosters and Knights sides, some of the results in Penrith's late-season hot streak arguably didn't carry a finals-like intensity.
But any fears the young roster would freeze in the face of a hardened Bulldogs outfit were shattered in a 24-6 second half blitz, which followed on from Anthony Griffin's men absorbing plenty of Canterbury firepower over the opening 40.
At times frustrated by Canterbury's defence, at times hammered and hemmed inside their own red zone for extended periods, the young Panthers refused to buckle and opened up in a second half that showcased exactly why they entered Sunday's elimination final averaging 34 points scored (and just 11 conceded) over their five-match winning streak leading into the finals.
"We knew that was coming and it's something we spoke about throughout the week that we were going to have to handle their big forwards trying to roll through the ruck there," captain Matt Moylan said.
"Our forwards have been doing a great job for us all year and they did an outstanding job for us [Sunday] to be able to turn them away so many times in the first half when they probably did have the better of the opportunities and a bit of a roll on."
Hooker Peter Wallace – who finished off one of the team tries of the season at a crucial juncture in that second half – was one of the few Panthers with healthy finals experience on Sunday, having played in four September campaigns with the Broncos. But he said he didn't feel the need to say too much to the younger players in the squad.
"I thought we handled the week and the occasion really well," Wallace said.
"It was good to get through the first one for a lot of the boys, their first taste of finals so they played really well. I'm really happy with them.
"We touched on it during the week, what to expect, the intensity goes up and we knew that first 40 was going to be really tough and that's how it was. We prepared that way. We had a really good week last week and I think that helped us in the game.
"We obviously knew they were going to come out firing and they started [Sam] Kasiano which is probably a big pointer with they wanted to try and blow us away early. They probably had a lot of the running in that first half but we hung in there with them and came out the other side really well."
In particular, a period of intense Canterbury defence after they had scored the game's first try threatened to break Penrith's resolve but the plucky Panthers refused to buckle, absorbing that examination then getting themselves on the board shortly before half time.
"We knew that was coming as well. We knew we were going to have a few tough sets coming out of our own end and probably defend our line a fair bit too so like I said we just prepared really well for everything," Wallace said.
"Everything we prepared for probably happened. Credit to 'Hook' [Griffin], he really got us ready for last week."
Wallace said the players knew they would need to come up with more of the same against a Canberra side that boasts another big and formidable forward pack.
"Yeah we're going to have to do a lot of that again this week, they've got a big pack as well and they've been starting really fast as well and blowing teams away so we've got to make sure that doesn't happen," Wallace added.
Moylan said while the team hadn't been short on confidence heading into the Canterbury game, they would get a further lift out of beating a team of finals specialists in a knock-out game.
"We can obviously take a lot of confidence out of it, beating a side with so much finals experience and big game experience," Moylan said.
"I think it was good for a lot of the boys to get their first finals game out of the way and get it off to a winning start."
Back-rower Isaah Yeo – one of the many young Panthers who now have one finals game under their belts – said the team had been happy with their recent performances and despite not knowing exactly how they'd handle the finals cauldron, felt well prepared.
"Obviously you expect it but it just goes up another level," Yeo said.
"You expect that but you're not really sure if you're physically ready for that but obviously to come away with a win like that in a final like that, it was a big grind, especially in that first half and they're a big pack.
"I'm pretty sure all the boys who it was their first finals experience, they'll take a fair bit out of that.
"We knew what to expect, we knew they were starting Kasiano so we knew they were going to try and come through our middle.
"We've been able to weather that and a couple of times they really turned it up on us and we really struggled finding yardage in that first half and to come over the top of that and have more legs in that second half is probably the most pleasing part.
"Our defence, especially in the middle period, we've obviously got a lot of skilled players out wide but to be able to match it with those big forwards in the middle, that was pleasing."
Game on. Data off.
Stream every NRL game, including finals, live and data free with a 2016 Footy Pass, exclusive to Telstra mobile.
Watch all the NRL action live on your compatible tablet or mobile device with data-free streaming on your Telstra mobile plan.
For use in Australia only.