Can the Warriors beat Penrith?
Short answer – probably not unless Dylan Edwards isn’t on the team sheet. Long answer – possibly, but a good start is required, along with their best defensive effort of the season, and shutting down Nathan Cleary is a must.
Can I just start by saying… How good it is to actually be having this conversation? What a welcome reprieve. Long may it continue. Welcome back to finals footy, Warriors fans.
Soak it up. Bathe in it.
Now for the bad news…
The Warriors have not beaten the Penrith Panthers in 4 to 5 years. In fact, the Warriors have only had one finals appearance since the glory days of their 2011 grand final loss. It was in 2018 that the Warriors played finals footy, and as it happened, it was Penrith that knocked them out in a first-round game in which Shaun Johnson was accused of going missing in action. Will history repeat or be created?
Penrith have won the last six games against the Warriors, of which four were by 13 + margins. If anyone can appreciate why that is, it will thankfully be former Penrith assistant coach, Andrew Webster. This year the Warriors improved against Penrith with Webster at the helm – the Warriors only losing their one game against Penrith by 12, thanks to a late try that put the game beyond reach. And you have to take into account that it was the Warriors’ third game in 11 days, with Dylan Walker playing in the No. 6 jersey. Add in a few reffing howlers, and you’d have to be optimistic that the Warriors could rise to this challenge.
A lot of pundits are playing up the Warriors’ inexperience, but I’d argue there’s more there than meets the eye. Six Warriors players have reached a Grand Final and two have won. There’s finals experience among the rest, along with the average age of 27, which is likely what is providing them with the composure required for tight games.
There’s a problem though. The Warriors have been playing a lot like Penrith this season. And no one knows how to play the way Penrith does, better than Penrith. If you watched the game between Penrith and the Bulldogs in Round 21, you’ll have seen how Ivan Cleary handled matching up against his old assistant coach, Cameron Ciraldo. Cleary knew that Ciraldo would know their general game plan, so…. he changed it up. He used players slightly differently to how they’d been played previously. Suddenly, the Bulldogs were dealing with James Fisher-Harris running at them constantly, instead of just being used for his usual defensive power. Suddenly, the ball was sent out wide on the second tackle. It had an impact, catching the Bulldogs off guard. Various techniques were employed to keep the Dogs on their toes, who were found wanting.
You can expect Cleary to apply a similar approach in this week’s final against his old assistant, Andrew Webster because Webster will know how Penrith will prepare, and he’ll know the type of game plan Cleary will want to take into finals. However, Cleary will appreciate this, and likely bring a few tricks up his sleeve to put the Warriors off their stride. One of those things will be fury and fire to start the game. The Warriors have been guilty of slow starts this season, and Penrith has the best defensive record in the NRL. If Penrith puts two or three tries on the Warriors in the opening 25 minutes, then with Dylan Edwards calling the shots on defence, the Warriors will struggle to chase that scoreline and it will be game over. While the Eels may have given some other sides hope that Penrith were defensively suspect, you need to keep in mind this was without Dylan Edwards organising the defensive line, and the guy is worth his weight in gold.
The other stat being bandied around is that the Panthers only win 50% of their games without Jerome Luai. But you have to remember, Cleary isn’t usually there either because they are both playing State of Origin. So that number is a false economy in the wider picture.
So, how can the Warriors win?
They have to bring one of their best starts, and not leak more than two tries early. If they do, it’s potentially a long night at the office, and at about the 50th minute, fans will be casting their minds to next week and wondering who they will be playing between the Knights or Raiders – and let’s face it, if it comes to that, it will be the Knights unless the Raiders can pull off a massive upset. But if the Warriors can start well, it will give them confidence.
Having said that, it’s important the Panthers score first. This season, the Warriors appear to struggle to win games when they score first. For some unknown reason, it’s not enough for the Warriors to be underdogs: they prefer to leak a bit of blood into the water before they beat another side. The problem is that the Panthers only leak about two to three tries per game. So, if the Warriors want to win, then they’ll need to put on their best defensive display this season, once they’ve let the Panthers get one. But I hear you, I’d prefer the Warriors put on 30 unanswered points before the Panthers score!
Defensively the Warriors have been suspect over the last few months on their left flank with Ford, Metcalfe, and Montoya. Having Te Marie there will assist with this. But the Warriors match the Panthers in all areas on the park man for man, except in the 3, 4, and 5 jerseys. And that’s where they are likely to drive their attack early and late in sets. They will use attacking kicks where Crichton and Tago put pressure on bombs toward the flanks and upset the Warriors’ wingers. CNK is solid under the high ball, but the wings have often been dubious at best. So, expect Cleary to drive kicks toward Montoya and Dallin. Nullify this though, and the Warriors will be able to take out on of the Panthers’ big weapons.
Next, and it might sound obvious, but they must shut down Nathan Cleary with line speed. If Dylan Walker can come on after 20 minutes and make Cleary’s life hell for the next 50 minutes, the Warriors are a real chance of causing an upset. While Dylan Edwards brings the defensive voice to the Panthers, the Eels put all the pressure on Cleary, especially after Luai came off. You could see this in Queensland’s approach during State of O. Generally, the plays come through Cleary, so if the Warriors can ensure he has little to no time, then the Panthers won’t have as many options on attack.
It’s unlikely the Warriors are going to change their style that has been so successful for them this season. But they need to bring a little something extra to put the Panthers off their stride too. A funky set play off the second tackle? Who knows… However you look at it, the Warriors are going to have to play their best game of the season. And they haven’t been playing well after byes. When you take into account that the large majority of their talent took a week off, smart money is on the Panthers. They have recent history on their side, more recent finals experience, and good form coming off the back of their game against the Cowboys last week. But you’d still be a brave person to put your house on them against the Warriors.
Bring the noise.
I can’t wait.