NRL Rd 7 - Panthers v Rabbitohs
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 25: Hame Sele of the Rabbitohs is tackled during the round seven NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium on June 25, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Following the completion of another week of finals football, the field in the month long marathon has now narrowed to just four.

Although only two of the topsy turvy season’s top four have made it through to the second last week of finals, the form of the white hot Rabbitohs and chook-crushing Raiders have more than deserved their Prelim berths.

The finish line may be in sight, but there are still a pair of final hurdles that need hopping.

Of all the queries that will have head coaches scouring film, stats and injury reports before team selection, these four remain the most likely to induce greying.

These are the penultimate hurdles facing the four Preliminary Finalists.

Canberra: Will lightning strike twice for the Raiders?

In a season unlike any other in contemporary history, every team has had wild peaks and troughs in their 2020 form lines.

Although the Raiders climbed the mountain last season and were a dubious refereeing decision away from planting their flag and hoisting the trophy, their form this season has left many scratching their heads.

Apart from their Round 13 defeat at the hands of the all-conquering Panthers, Canberra has defeated all of the teams still alive at this late stage of the season.

The Green Machine’s systematic dismantling of the Storm in Round three not only had Ricky Stuart beaming in the coaches box, it also had them firming with the bookies as premiership favourites.

In a night that produced four tries away from home and yielded a 22-6 victory, the Raiders planted seeds of doubt in the minds of many about the Storm’s competition winning credentials.

However, in the five weeks following their win south of the border, the fortunes between those in lime green and those clad in purple could not have been more juxtaposed.

In Rounds 4 to 8, the Raiders managed only a pair of wins over non-finalists the Dragons and Wests, whilst posting losses against Newcastle, Manly and Parramatta respectively.

Over this five-week period, ‘the Milk’ averaged less than 16 points for and nearly 20 points against. This may seem a slim margin, but when compared with Melbourne’s output over the same stretch, it almost certainly had Stuart’s fingernails at risk.

During this quintet of weeks, the Storm posted a 4-1 record including wins against finals teams South Sydney, Newcastle and Sydney.

Within these fixtures, Melbourne posted a mean winning margin of 27.8 and conceded only a miserly 14.4.

So despite Canberra hosting the Storm in Round 9 and despite them having dissected their opponents apart just over a month prior, it came as no surprise to see the Storm run out victors over the Raiders in their second meeting on the season.

Now many of you reading this will predictably point out that this form may be inconsequential, but as the fortunes have yet to be reversed since, the onus is on Stuart to return to his Round 3 notes.

The Raiders have already proven they have the ability to rain on the Storm’s parade, but do they have the ability to make lightening strike twice in a calendar year?

Melbourne: Does Cameron Smith have any rabbits left in the hat?

In a career where he has shattered almost every conceivable record, it would be a wild understatement to suggest that Cameron Smith has done it all.

Over 428 first grade games, Smith’s career win loss record currently stands at 308 wins, 118 losses and just a pair of draws.

For those of you outside of arms reach of a calculator, that has the imminent immortal’s career success rate sitting at a preposterous 71.96%

There are many reasons for Smith’s longevity in the game. Elements such as diet, preparation, focus and constant upskilling cannot be played down, however, it is the hooker’s ability to consistently rise to the occasion that has served him and the Storm so well across almost two decades.

In the 19 seasons that Smith has played in Melbourne, the Storm have only missed the finals once (the season they were stripped of points and ultimately ‘won’ the wooden spoon).

Over this same period, the club has won two premierships (four if you’re ask any Storm fan), made the Grand Final a further four times and won four official minor premierships.

Now it may be a stretch to attribute all of this success to the man in the number nine jersey, but to dismiss this point would be imbecilic.

At age 37, the Queenslander is no spring chicken, and should the Raiders top the Storm this weekend, it could even be last drinks for the lauded superstar.

However, with the proven ability to command a game he entered well over two generations ago, keep your eyes peeled on the Logan born shaman this Friday night, as there’s no telling what tricks he still has up his sleeve.

Penrith: Will the week off hinder or help the Panthers?

Across this season of stoppages, spot tests and surprises, the only constant has been the form of the Penrith Panthers.

In their 21 outings this season, the boys from the foot of the blue mountains have amassed a near perfect 20-1 record, with their only defeat coming in a narrow six-point loss to the Eels back in June.

Since this single speedbump, Ivan Cleary’s troops have averaged a whopping 29 points for and only a stingy 12.12 against per game.

With weapons across the park ranging from the 31-year-old skipper James Tamou to the neophyte Charlie Staines, the Panthers have avenues to attack at both ends of the age scale.

However, this broad spectrum actually creates a minor conundrum for Cleary in terms of preparation.

With his charges having put the feet up last week and watched Souths and Parramatta slug it out, the age-old question is sure to have crossed Cleary’s mind – will this week off help or instead hinder his player’s quest for premiership glory?

For any athlete, both professional and park standard, preparation is key to performance.

Elder statesmen are usually placed on lighter duties in between games and are known to make frantic signs of the cross when a week off is afforded.

For the younger members of the squad, youth tends to allow for quicker turn arounds to provide opportunity rather than oppression on their bodies.

The major pitfall of youth is inexperience. With so many of these young Panthers never having played in a Preliminary Final, the ability to have spent the last week playing the game in their mind would have provided a tantalizing prospect.

Sure, the Panthers record this season suggest they have been nothing but professional and clinical in their preparation and performances, but as we all know, finals football is a horse of a different colour.

Although the Panthers have swept all before them this season, this question will remain rhetorical until late on Saturday night. However, should Souths stop Penrith’s 16 game winning streak, expect questions about the bye being put to Cleary post game.

South Sydney: Will Wayne be tempted to tinker?

Following South Sydney’s 38-24 Semi-Final victory over Parramatta last week, the Rugby League world was subjected to another ice-cold Wayne Bennett press conference.

In this typically curt and at times facetious presser, Bennett suggested that he had barely lifted a finger in terms of coaching them.

For anyone with the ability to read between the deadpan mastermind’s lines, the message was clear – if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it.

Since Round 15, the Rabbitohs have amassed a 6-2 win/loss record, posting cricket scores in all of their victories.

Their at times disjointed and unstructured game style has led to said score sitting on the board and queries being raised about their preparation.

Bennett’s response closed the door on any speculation. He is simply letting them play on instinct.

Victories over then premiership contenders Parramatta, Sydney and Newcastle, as well as a narrow loss to Melbourne, in this period suggest that the style of play stacks up, but will it pass the acid test they are set to face against Penrith on Saturday.

You have to cast your eyes back to Round 7 to find the last meeting between the Preliminary Finalists (a 20-12 victory for the Panthers), however, as has been suggested prior in this inquisition, can we read too much into this past encounter?

The scoreboard may have read 20-12 that Thursday night in late June, but the fact of the matter is that it was four tries to two, with the Bunnies second coming as the timekeeper was set to sound the final siren.

At its best, Souths’ almost carefree manner of flinging the ball around their backs, after being set in motion by their creative halves, is mesmerizing. At its worst, it nets losses to lowly sides like Canterbury.

With his arms folded in the Bankwest Stadium media room last Saturday, Bennett stated that he had done little homework on the Panthers. He also indicated that his team’s style of play is unlikely to change.

However, after so many years in the game and so much success, most league fans have learnt to take Wayne’s words with a grain of salt.