Finals Week 1 concludes with an all-Sydney Elimination Final between the red-hot Penrith Panthers and the always dangerous Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. These two sides enter the finals on different trajectories but this match promises to be a tightly contested and physical encounter.

LAST TIME OUT

The Panthers fine-tuned their recent form with a 30 point romp over the hapless manly Sea Eagles on Sunday night Football. The first half display from the mountain men was simply superb as they ran in 24 unanswered points to put the match beyond doubt. A quiet second half saw them ease their way into finals football in full heath and top form.

The Bulldogs recent poor form continued as the struggled to overcome a more determined and hungry South Sydney side on Friday night. The Bulldogs looked to be turning their recent form around early as they skipped out to an early lead but the momentum quickly swung in the favour of the Rabbitohs side. The Bulldogs forwards were never able to wrestle the ascendency back, not through lack of trying, and as a result South Sydney ran in several late tries to leave Des Haslers’ men entering finals football on the back of three straight losses.

KEY BATTLES

The battle of the 5/8’s

These sides have class and skill spread across the park, but the key has been the performance of the number 6. Sunday’s match will again rest heavily on the ability of Bryce Cartwright and Josh Reynolds as the pair face off in a do or die scenario. These two talented players old the key to victory in this match.

Bryce Cartwright has to be one of the most skilful ball-playing forwards in the competition. His ability to create opportunities in attack and spark attacking raids for his talented outside backs has seen the Panthers blow teams off the park in short periods of time. He does have some weaknesses in defence which he will need to ensure don’t rear their ugly head on Sunday. His tackling has been exposed by hard running forwards changing direction at the line of attack on multiple occasions in 2016, this match-up against the Bulldogs will be a torrid affair. The Dogs know how to win finals football and if Cartwright will have some of the biggest forwards in the competition running at him for most of the afternoon. He will also have his decision making time with the ball in hand cut down significantly as the intensity of finals football, particularly against an experience side like the Bulldogs, hits home. Cartwright will need to ensure he decision making is faultless as costly errors will be punished in this match.

The Bulldogs recent struggles have stemmed from their inability to put points on the board; Josh Reynolds is the key to reigniting their attack. If Canterbury are going to be able to break out of their recent form slump and keep their 2016 campaign alive it will need to be on the back of their fearless number 6. Reynolds at his best is relentless on the football field and has single handidly lifting his side to victories in multiple occasions over the last few years. If he can get his kicking game on-song this will give the Bulldogs the momentum to turn this match into a grind and limit the dangerous Panthers side in attack.

PREDICTION

The Bulldogs and Panthers have a fairly even record against each other over the last few years.  The key area that will set them aside come Sunday afternoon is their recent finals football experience.

The Bulldogs enter with plenty of runs on the board in this regard having made multiple deep runs into the finals over recent years. They are a side who are well suited to the intensity and grit of Finals Footy. The Panthers have emerged in 2016 as a side full of young and exciting prospects. A lot of their success will rest on the way the Nathan Cleary, Bryce Cartwright and Matthew Moylan adapt their match play to the intensity of a final.

If this was a regular season match it would be hard to see the Bulldogs getting close to the Panthers. Des Hasler will have his side primed to return to form and implement the “Dogs of War” mantra that has seen them be so successful in September as a club over the last 20 years. The Panthers are no push over’s either, their electric play and suffocating defence over the last month has put many rivals sides on notice, despite their finals in-experience they are a serious contender to the 2016 crown.

The Bulldogs will come out breathing fire and try to intimidate their way into this match against the Panthers. Ultimately it will come down to scoring points and it is hard to see the Bulldogs creating enough opportunities to ultimately overcome the Panthers. After a torrid opening expect the Panthers to gain the ascendency and stamp their ticket to week two of Finals football with an impressive win over the club from Canterbury.

Panthers to win by 14.

SQUADS

Panthers: 1 Matthew Moylan (c) 2 Joshua Mansour 3 Waqa Blake 4 Tyrone Peachey 5 Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 6 Bryce Cartwright 7 Nathan Cleary 8 Leilani Latu 9 Peter Wallace 10 Suaia Matagi 11 Isaah Yeo 12 James Fisher-Harris 13 Trent Merrin. Interchange 14 Sitaleki Akauola 15 Jeremy Latimore 16 Christopher Grevsmuhl 17 Zak Hardaker 20 Moses Leota

Bulldogs: 1 Brett Morris 2 Tyrone Phillips 3 Josh Morris 4 Kerrod Holland 5 Curtis Rona 6 Josh Reynolds 7 Moses Mbye 8 Aiden Tolman 9 Michael Lichaa 10 James Graham (c) 11 Joshua Jackson 12 Greg Eastwood 13 David Klemmer Interchange: 14 Sam Kasiano 15 Tim Browne 16 Tony Williams 17 Raymond Faitala 19 Danny Fualalo