When the Bulldogs and Panthers scrap on the NRL’s opening Sunday, there’s sure to be flailing limbs amid a cloud of dust – the type you see in Warner Bros cartoons. Who’ll be left waving the white flag like the downtrodden Coyote is anyone’s guess, but it’ll be hard to tip against the home side, Penrith.
If you’re heading out to the game, which is now being played at arena called Pepper Stadium – presumably the same place the Panthers played last year – it’s probably best to barrack for Penrith anyway. There are just some home grounds that know nothing of neutrality. “Switzerland?” people at the foot of the mountains are typically overheard asking. This is also weird given that their boys used to be called Chocolate Soldiers.
What’s my team?
Out west, it doesn’t matter if the crowd is low in number, as tends to happen in the cooler months, they love their Panthers. Penrith Pride, I think they call it.
— Penrith Panthers (@PenrithPanthers) January 28, 2015
And don’t forget, this is a fanbase that’s endured more identity changes than Frank Abignale Jr: from the aforementioned chocolate men, to the Licorice All-Sorts, to the Black-and-Blue-Cats-That-Drink-Oak-Milk, or something. The point is, if you own a Panthers flag, chances are it doubles as supporter item for any number of other sporting teams.
Appearances aside, Penrith looks the part of a champion. Not only do the Panthers have a speedy back line attack, led by the headiest man in headgear, Jamie Soward, and one of the craftiest in a No.7 jersey, Peter Wallace, but their forwards bust through lines behind little locomotive, James Segeyaro.
Segeyaro led the NRL in line breaks by a forward, according to Fox Sports, but also topped the pops among fans as the best name to say in a Ray Warren voice.
Penrith’s general manager (for now) Phil Gould says this team’s almost there. And he’s not only talking about their ability to win it all but their off-field impact. Gus doesn’t just drink the mocha flavoured Kool-Aid, he quite possibly mixed it. So overhauling Penrith simply isn’t enough: he wants something akin to cultural domination. Why the hell not?
Battle of two – make that four halves
But this initial contest won’t be all about Penrith. If it’s playmaking you love, then there mightn’t be a better affair to christen your season with. The Dogs’ Origin duo of Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds are among the best in the business because of the way they combine, and when they celebrate a try, their comradery is evident. As are their haircuts. Sharp.
Graham the goldfish
The Panthers were truly on the cusp last season. And they lost a number of games by such a small margin that it makes you wonder how much better they were than their 15-9 record. Then again, their defence could be spun around like a reporter trying to crack Des Hasler at a presser.
Meanwhile, the Dogs were tough – they are tough – but ran out of steam in the second half of last year’s big one. That may take its toll psychologically this year. Or maybe not. They did, after all, go further than Penrith.
And if there’s ever a player you wanted to lead your team’s charge into a new campaign, it’s James Graham. He’s big, he’s wild, and he’s the sort of man who’d care very little about what happened the last time Canterbury were on the paddock. That’ll go a long way.