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For & Against: Fittler predicts Panthers will win premiership

Penrith's dream run in 2020 is about to hit its biggest test - the pressure-cooker of the NRL finals.

A regular season that included just one loss is now in the rear-view mirror.

For the Panthers to truly regard their Telstra Premiership campaign as a success they need to be the last team standing on grand final night.

Channel Nine commentator, NSW Blues coach and former Panthers great Brad Fittler is backing Penrith to finish the job they started so well.

But, in the latest edition of For & Against, NRL.com senior reporter Brad Walter begs to differ.

Panthers v Roosters - Qualifying final

For

NSW Blues coach and Channel Nine commentator Brad Fittler

The Penrith Panthers have strike across the field and the best defence in the NRL this season. That's why they are my tip to win the Telstra Premiership.

On only two occasions in 20 rounds of the regular season have the Panthers conceded more than 14 points, and one of those was way back in March against the Dragons before the competition was suspended.

The other was their 56-24 defeat of the Sharks in Round 9, and in the 11 matches since the Panthers have conceded just 104 points.

The Panthers are ready to chase history

They are good signs as premierships are usually won by the best defensive teams but Penrith have consistently shown over the course of the season that they have little problem scoring points either.

What I like about the Panthers is that they have strike all over the field. Last weekend against Canterbury their left winger, left centre, right winger, right centre, a second-rower and a front-rower all scored tries. They attack you from everywhere.

Some people will probably say they haven't got a lot of big match experience in their squad but you can only get that from playing in big matches.

Penrith have only lost one game all year [16-10 against Parramatta] and they were right in that. They were leading up until the 60th-minute mark and the Eels scored three tries in 10 minutes.

You might have expected the youth in the Panthers side to have crumbled at some stage during the year but the key members of the Panthers team – halfback Nathan Cleary, hooker Api Koroisau, fullback Dylan Edwards and props James Tamou and James Fisher-Harris - are all quite calm so I don't see them falling too far out of games.

Isaah Yeo is also important to them at lock and when he is not there they are a bit of a different team so his health is very important.

Nathan Cleary and Josh Mansour with the JJ Giltinan Shield.
Nathan Cleary and Josh Mansour with the JJ Giltinan Shield. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Players like Viliame Kikau, Stephen Crichton and Brent Naden provide X-factor and with everyone in the squad healthy heading into the finals, Penrith coach Ivan Cleary has a lot of depth to draw on if needed.

Watching their whole team and how they behave shows that there is a really good vibe at Penrith at the moment and I expect that to culminate in a third premiership victory for the Panthers.

Against

 NRL.com senior reporter Brad Walter

All good things must come to an end and it is hard to see Penrith's golden run continuing all the way to the grand final.

The Panthers secured the minor premiership in round 19 and won 15 consecutive matches by playing an enterprising but organised brand of football. It was a joy to watch.

Ivan Cleary and his players couldn't have done much more than finish the regular season with just one loss but the intensity of matches and standard of opposition is about to step up and this Penrith team is largely untested at finals level.

Abdo presents Panthers with J.J. Giltinan Shield

Just eight members of the Panthers squad remain from the club’s last finals campaign in 2018, when they beat the Warriors and lost to Cronulla, and only four of those – Nathan Cleary, Josh Mansour, Isaah Yeo and James Fisher-Harris – were involved in the 2016 play-offs.

What they have achieved this season can't be undervalued but it must be noted that besides the eighth-placed Sharks, who have not beaten another top-eight team, Penrith have played just two other finals teams – Canberra and Parramatta - since June.

Both those matches were at Panthers Stadium, where they will face Sydney Roosters on Friday night in a massive test of both team's premiership credentials after the back-to-back grand finals winners suffered a record 60-8 loss to South Sydney last weekend.

While it seems unfair to cast doubt about Penrith because they haven't had the chance to play other top opposition, premiership-winning teams usually need to enter the finals battle-hardened and prepared for all scenarios.

If not, they usually rely on previous big match experience but Penrith have little besides Cleary's involvement in the past two State of Origin campaigns for NSW and captain James Tamou being a member of North Queensland's 2015 grand final winning team.

To win the grand final, the Panthers are likely to need to extend their unbeaten streak to 18 consecutive matches – a feat not achieved in the NRL era.

The most recent team to lose a finals match and win a grand final was the Cowboys, who beat the Broncos in extra-time to claim their first premiership in 2015.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.