The Penrith Panthers enter their semi-final against the Eels on Saturday night as firm favourites.
Few will take up the odds of $1.22 for the men from the foot of the mountains to prevail, with Parramatta, as rank outsiders, paying a little over $4.00 to triumph and appearing better value than the team that has man-handled and embarrassed many others this season.
Over the course of 24 months, the Panthers have been the most consistent side during home and away play. Losing just four of their last 43 regular season matches, Ivan Cleary's troops have met every challenge placed before them in the lead up to the real stuff that begins in September.
In the COVID interrupted season of 2020 where Penrith won the minor premiership by a clear five points, the Panthers subsequently only snuck home by a single point against the Roosters in the first week of the finals series.
South Sydney pushed them to the brink in the Preliminary Final a fortnight later and the signs suggested for the umpteenth time in rugby league history that a domination in home and away play assures nothing when it comes to the knockout phase of an NRL competition.
When the Melbourne Storm did what the Melbourne Storm do and survived a few second-half scares to win that 2020 premiership, one that many saw as ordained for the Panthers, questions arose about Penrith's credentials, their soul and the ability to produce what was required on that one most significant day.
Sure, they could blow teams away at will on their home deck and utterly embarrass defences that failed to turn up with the commitment and dedication required to repel such a dynamic attacking team. Yet the silent sentence lurking in the minds of many asked whether the Panthers had the steel and grit to win the big matches when the grind set in.
In 2020, Penrith scored 537 points, more than all bar the Roosters and led the differential statistic by 41 points over the second-placed Storm with a +299 for and against record. History shows that that dominance was not enough and a heart-breaking loss in a cracking grand final sent Cleary back to the drawing board and in search of revenge.
The tools at the coach's disposal are superb. Explosive backs like Stephen Crichton, Matt Burton and Brian To'o have the foundation laid for them by dominant and skilful forwards such as James Fisher-Harris, Viliame Kikau and Isaah Yeo.
Throw in consistent worker Liam Martin and the playmaking Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai and Apisai Koroisau and the sheer talent of the squad suggests that the Penrith premiership window is wide open; inviting them in and anything other than a triumph potentially scarring.
After the 2020 disappointment, the Panthers hit the ground running, kept running and rarely stopped running in 2021; building another season of excellence where just three games were lost and a second minor premiership was only prevented by a Melbourne Storm team that looks like one of the best to have ever competed in the NRL era.
A +390 regular season for and against evidenced new rules that allowed the best to obliterate the poor far more easily and the momentum in games became seemingly impossible to overturn. Such a situation appeared to suit the attacking Panthers and the longer the season went, the more a return match-up with Melbourne in the grand final appeared likely.
Then South Sydney, a team without its most potent weapon in the form of Latrell Mitchell, stunned the Panthers on the first weekend of finals with a gritty 16-10 victory in the Sunshine State. The loss appeared to remind the home and away conquering Panthers of the difference between finals' play and the rather mundane week to week stuff that an NRL season can sometimes become.
Wayne Bennett's Bunnies were superb, playing a finals brand of football that took away the open nature of the game that the Panthers have become so accustomed to over the last two season.
The Cleary's had no answer and South Sydney moved mighty close to yet another grand final, with only Manly or the Roosters in their way. At the same time, Penrith was sent back for a semi-final do-or-die clash with it's closest geographical rival Parramatta.
Picking the form of the Eels is not easy, and despite a solid performance against the Knights to advance to this stage of the finals, one would be hard pushed to find solid arguments as to why they will beat the Panthers.
Yet, all the Eels really need to do is play freely; knowing full well that their season has once again been successful, yet a spot in the last four seemingly destined for their opponents.
In short, they have nothing to lose. In reverse, the Panthers have everything to lose. Should the Eels triumph, all the dominance of Penrith over the last two seasons will mean diddly-squat and who knows whether it automatically continues in 2022.
I'd suggest Penrith grabs its chance now, otherwise, the last two years may in fact have been a complete waste of time.