The Penrith Panthers might have won the minor premiership, but there are plenty of questions still to be answered when they take on the Parramatta Eels for a week off and direct passage to the preliminary finals in the opening game of the NRL finals.

The Panthers come into the game potentially underdone, although it’s hard to doubt the success rate of Ivan Cleary on big decisions he has made over the past 24 months, with the Panthers winning the minor premiership in 2020, the premiership in 2021, and making the grand final in 2020.

It’s success the likes of which we haven’t seen all that often in the history of the game, and a back-to-back premiership would begin to move Penrith’s current generation of talent - most of which are local juniors - up the pecking order when it comes to history's top teams.

But that is getting some way ahead of the facts, with the Panthers coming into this game having rested 13 players last week.

But that may not be their biggest concern, with the minor premiers also welcoming back Nathan Cleary for the first time since a loss to Parramatta in Round 20 when he was suspended for five weeks for a dangerous throw on Dylan Brown.

Halves partner Jarome Luai also comes into the game having only played once in that time frame. He injured his knee, and while he returned for Round 24, Ivan Cleary elected to rest him for last weekend’s trip north to Townsville, which the Panthers ultimately lost, although it made no impact on their final finishing position, having wrapped up the minor premiership with weeks to spare.

It’s that level of form the Panthers will be keen on rebounding to during the finals, but it’s also that level which remains a question mark for the men from the foot of the mountains. If match fitness and timing - particularly from Cleary and Luai is off - then the Eels are the sort of side who will be able to make them pay.

The men in blue and gold, who have fallen short in the finals during each of the last three series, enter the finals with the same questions which have progressively gained more and more steam over that time period.

Most of the questioning is about consistency - of that there can be little to no doubt. Brad Arthur has publicly spoken about the fact he isn’t worried regarding the team’s consistency, but that in itself is enough of a reason to worry for fans of the club.

Taking away from the consistency issue though, the Eels look like a team who will be able to genuinely challenge the minor premiers and push for a premiership if they can string three games together.

But it's almost a case of must-win when they run out at the foot of the mountains this evening.

Their season record against Penrith shows they know how to win this match up. The Western Sydney derby saw Penrith lose their first game at home in two years during Round 9 when the blue and gold won by two points, and it was a much bigger 34 points to 10 win against a 12-man Panthers in Round 20 following Cleary's send off.

But that old question of consistency will continue to linger over Parramatta until they manage to throw the monkey off the back.

That's not to say this won't be the time they finally do it. Clint Gutherson has been enormous for Parramatta in the last fortnight in particular, and his form has the ability to turn the Eels into a completely different football team.

Isaiah Papali'i too has been enormous, while the impact of Ryan Matterson provides the Eels with something that few other teams have.

Team news

Penrith Panthers
1. Dylan Edwards 2. Taylan May 3. Izack Tago 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Brian To'o 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Moses Leota 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Liam Martin 13. Isaah Yeo
Interchange: 14. Mitch Kenny 15. Scott Sorensen 16. Spencer Leniu 17. Jaeman Salmon 18. Charlie Staines 19. Matt Eisenhuth

Penrith have made plenty of changes for this game, obviously, but they all simply take them back to full strength.

All of last week's rested players come straight back into the side, while Nathan Cleary is also back from his suspension. Of the players who turned out last weekend, Mitch Kenny, Scott Sorensen and Jaeman Salmon, take the final spots on the bench alongside Spencer Leniu who was also rested.

Parramatta Eels
1. Clinton Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Viliami Penisini 4. Tom Opacic 5. Waqa Blake 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Isaiah Papali'i 13. Ryan Matterson
Interchange: 14. Makahesi Makatoa 15. Jakob Arthur 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Marata Niukore 18. Nathan Brown 19. Bailey Simonsson

The Eels, at the very least, come into the finals with a steady side at their disposal, having made no changes from last weekend's game.

Where it'll be won and lost

It was touched on briefly above, but you can't go past the fact that the Panthers are a little bit of an unknown quantity in terms of exactly how they will play.

If they gel and combined with timing and match fitness at the top of their games, they are as close to an unbeatable team as we have in this competition.

But if they don't, then it could be a real scrap for Penrith - but you best believe they will turn it into one.

With a strong rotation of middle third forwards, Penrith have held the NRL's best defensive record this season, with the Cowboys in second but 31 points separating the pair.

NRL Rd 1 - Panthers v Sea Eagles

That said, the Eels will need to find points if they are to win the game, and a lot of that comes down to the play of Clint Gutherson.

He may not be the man credited with the most try assists, or the most involvements, but he does so many things which aren't recorded on a stats sheet that make the world of difference to his team.

His form in the last fortnight, particularly during last week's win over the Storm was phenomenal, and when the fullback is in-form, it makes Mitchell Moses and Dylan Brown so much stronger and more dangerous.

If the Eels' trio combine as we know they can, then Penrith's defence goes under enormous pressure, and they may simply not be able to rely on an attack which hasn't played at full strength in over a month to bail them out.

The middle third is also a clear cause for debate between the two sides. James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota and Isaah Yeo up against Junior Paulo, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Marata Niukore and Ryan Matterson once he comes off the bench.

The winner of that battle will take their team a long way towards winning the game, while the influence of Apisai Koroisau and Reed Mahoney in the respective number nine jerseys will also be critical.

The history

As mentioned, it has been one way traffic this year, with the Eels winning both games against the Panthers.

That's the way it has been in history as well, with the Eels winning 60 of their 105 games against the arch-rivals in the west of Sydney.

This will be the fourth finals meeting between the two sides, with the Eels taking two of them compared to Penrith's one. In saying that, the final Penrith did win was last year's, with the Eels' season ending in devastating fashion at the semi-final stage yet again, this time in Mackay.

However, the record when playing in Penrith is a lot tighter, with the Panthers winning 25 of 52 fixtures played at home, compared to the Eels 26 with a single draw making up the difference.

Overall record: Played 105, Eels 60, Panthers, 44, drawn 1
Record in Penrith: Played 52, Eels 26, Panthers 25, drawn 1
Record in finals: Played 3, Eels 2, Panthers 1


As much as this season has looked like Penrith first and daylight second for much of the campaign, this game is a lot closer than that statement would indicate.

The Eels are the only team in the competition who genuinely have the wood over the Panthers.

That may not count for all that much when this one gets underway though, and it all likely comes down to how Cleary slots back into the team, as well as whether the Panthers suffer from a slow start after their entire side missed last week.

Without much in it, home ground advantage could make the difference in a thriller.

Panthers by 4.

Key information

Kick-off: Friday, September 9, 7:50pm (AEST)
Venue: BlueBet Stadium, Penrith
Referee: Gerard Sutton