Forget Sharks and Canberra; Panthers are the new fairy tale story of 2016 finals


For fifteen weeks the Cronulla Sharks were the toast of the National Rugby League and with good reason too. As each round went by and another W locked up, Harold Holt paddled closer to shore.

Long suffering Sharks fans believed for fifteen rounds that this was the squad that could finally bring glory and the silverware they’d been thirsting since 1967. But the NRL season is a long and winding road and after five straight losses, they’d well and truly come back to the pack.

By round 26, Ricky Stuart’s electric Canberra Raiders had surpassed them as the fairy tale story of the year. With an unheralded list that many thought would be fighting for the wooden spoon, the Green Machine have shocked everyone. From Joey Leilua to Elliott Whitehead – the Raiders are the real deal.

But none have been more important than hooker Josh Hodgson. The former Hull KR dummy half has been instrumental in the Raiders run to a top two spot and is a candidate for the Dally M Medal.

Then the Sharks decided to show up and break their losing streak downing the Raiders at a raucous GIO Stadium. Worst of all for Canberra, Hodgson was taken from the field with an ankle injury.

Canberra led Cronulla 12-6 early in the second half when Hodgson buckled in a collision with teammate Aidan Sezer. The Raiders faded without him and lost 16-14.

Immortal Andrew Johns said the Raiders couldn’t win without him but that’s exactly what they’ll have to do with news coming out of the nation’s capital that the Englishman had torn ligaments in his ankle.

“I knew he was a good player, I’ve watched him this year, but the longer the season’s gone on it’s just blown me away how much class this guy’s got,” Johns said on The Sunday Footy Show.

“I don’t think [Raiders can win]. Everything comes off him and you saw what happened when he was off the field yesterday.

“He makes the players around him better players. He’s truly a world-class player.”

On Sunday afternoon at Allianz Stadium, Penrith put their hand up for fairy tale status with a dominant second half performance to eliminate Canterbury-Bankstown from the finals race.

This is a team without Dean Whare, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Peta Hiku and Sam McKendry. It’s also the same club that released James Segeyaro and Jamie Soward to the English Premier League, shifted veteran Peter Wallace to hooker, Bryce Cartwright to five-eight and Tyrone Peachey to the centres.

They are a rare breed that exhume total confidence and a willingness to play rugby league the way it should be played, by playing what is in front of them and trusting their instincts. So while Cronulla wrestle with form and the abyss of fifty years of failure and the Raiders wonder where to turn without Hodgson, the Panthers continue to catch lightning in a bottle.

“We wanted to enjoy the game,” Panthers captain Matt Moylan said.

“We have been making the most of it every week and having fun out there.”

Beware the side enjoying the pressure of finals football. Be more aware of the underdog.

Coach Anthony Griffin must be praised for the way he has this side firing.

“There is six left now — next week there will be four,” Griffin said after the big win against the Bulldogs.

“It was a really good performance, I was really happy with the way we built into the game. We kept our cool with the ball and eventually found the points we needed.

“We were confident if we got an equal share of the ball in the second half we could have some points in us.”

Beware the Panthers.