Though it’s importance in the rugby league landscape has fluctuated throughout the years, the ‘Western derby’ between Penrith and Parramatta has rarely meant more than in recent years.
Three of the past four meetings between the two teams have been decided by two points or less, and recent games have produced the height of drama, from last year’s controversial semi-final to this year’s first encounter, where Parramatta beat the Panthers for what was (and continues to be) their only loss of the season.
The team’s trajectories have been wildly different since. Penrith bounced back immediately and haven’t been beaten again, despite the significant impact of Origin on their squad.
They’re eight points ahead of the competition and had it not been for the Cowboys’ dramatic last-ditch win on Sunday, they could have been 10 points ahead just weeks out from the finals – a feat not achieved since the 1970s.
The Eels, meanwhile, have a 5-4 record across the same period despite a negligible Origin impact on their star-studded spine. At their best, they’ve rarely looked convincing, and at their worst they’ve been diabolical, as we saw in last week’s capitulation to Brisbane.
But according to Panthers co-captain Isaah Yeo, it wouldn’t matter if the Eels were 2nd or 16th this week – because as the defending premiers, every opponent steps up for a clash with Penrith.
“We respect our opposition no matter where they are on the table, that’s something we do well,” Yeo told Zero Tackle.
“We’re getting every team at their best as the premiers.
"This is a really big game, (the derby) is always important. They've beaten us before and they're trying to get back into form as well. They're a proud team that knows they need to be better.
“(The loss) helps motivate us a bit more, but we understand we just want to be playing our best football. It’s been harder with Origin to get some cohesiveness and sessions together as a group but we’re just trying to get better each week.”
That cohesiveness has taken a hit with the news this week that star five-eighth Jarome Luai will miss multiple weeks with a knee injury. Though his replacement Sean O’Sullivan has started five games this year thanks to Origin and an injury to Nathan Cleary, he and the club’s No.7 haven’t actually played together.
“(Luai) is a big out who does a quality job,” Yeo said.
“You never like to see those injuries but fortunately he should be back before the finals. Our plan doesn’t change but (O’Sullivan) is a different player. We’ll have to tweak a little bit.”
Yeo said the defeat to the Eels has served as a helpful reminder to the Panthers.
While so many finals mainstays like the Storm, Roosters and Rabbitohs have struggled for consistency as much as Parramatta in 2022, the defeat is a constant reminder that any of those teams is still dangerous and capable enough of beating anyone on their day.
“(The loss) reminds you that any team can beat you, especially in the top eight. If you have a poor game against those teams and they’re on, you’ll get beaten.
“But we’ve done really well over the past two and a half years. We’ve been incredibly consistent and we know we have to continue that.”
The clash kicks off tomorrow night, Friday July 29th at 7.55pm (AEST)