PNG Hunters v Penrith Panthers
Sunday, 2.40pm (QLD time)
Referee: Jarrod Cole
Assistant Referee: Chris Treneman
Touch Judges: Belinda Sleeman and Kasey Badger
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 2.30pm; Fox League – Live from 2.30pm* (QLD time)
The Intrust Super State Championship has thrown up some wonderful storylines since its revival in 2014, but nothing comes close to the emotion and excitement that will be generated when the Panthers host the Papua New Guinea Hunters on Sunday.
The Panthers progressed to their second state championship when they defeated Wyong in the New South Wales Rugby League's Intrust Super Premiership last Sunday evening while the Hunters' chance to represent the Queensland Rugby League as Intrust Super Cup champions came with a heart-stopping 12-10 win over the Sunshine Coast Falcons.
The mere existence of the Hunters is a testament to perseverance and absolute determination to provide something for which the entire nation can rally behind.
Upon their return to Port Moresby's Jackson International Airport on Monday, the Hunters players and coaching staff were met by thousands of footy fans in the type of scene usually reserved for visiting Australian teams.
But four years after joining the competition, the Hunters are now the heroes of the people of PNG and they will have eight million fans willing them on this Sunday.
On the field, the professionalism of the Panthers under coach Garth Brennan appears a mismatch against a PNG team that plays with passion above all else – but as the Hunters showed against a Falcons team laden with Melbourne Storm players, names mean nothing between the white stripes of a footy field.
As the Panthers had to fight back after going down 6-0 early to Wyong, the Hunters were behind 10-0 inside seven minutes, but grew stronger the longer the game went, wasting countless opportunities on the Falcons' try-line before eventually securing the match-winner courtesy of Willie Minoga 90 seconds from full-time.
Common sense suggests that the Panthers should win comfortably, but thankfully for all of us, rugby league often throws up a storyline that defies belief.
Why the Panthers can win: The Panthers have got class and experience in key playmaking positions that will challenge the Hunters defence at every turn. Hooker Mitch Rein performed strongly when he was elevated to the NRL team five times this year while halves Darren Nicholls and Jarome Luai complement each other superbly. With the power in the forward pack to match the energy and enthusiasm of the Hunters' willing workers the result will fall to the playmakers and the composure they can exhibit under pressure.
Why the Hunters can win: There is the danger that some of the Hunters players will be overawed by the occasion on Sunday, but as they showed in the QRL decider they have the ability to reset and work their way back into the contest. After seven minutes it looked as though Sunshine Coast would win by 50, but by halftime it was all the Hunters as the physicality of their style of play began to take its toll on the opposition. During the course of the game they made early errors in the attacking red zone on at least half a dozen occasions, yet the defence held out long enough to be able to stay in touch and eventually finish the stronger. They might look haphazard early, but they have shown all season an ability to power home and win games late.
The match-winners: He fell one game short of this fixture last year whilst playing for the Redcliffe Dolphins in the Intrust Super Cup, but now the ultra-consistent Darren Nicholls gets his time to shine on grand final day as the architect behind the Panthers' hopes. Nicholls' pin-point kicking game will cause a constant threat to the Hunters wingers, one of whom will have to contend with the high-flying Maika Sivo on the right wing.
As the Intrust Super Cup Player of the Year, Duncan Hall Medal winner as best player in the grand final and captain of the Hunters, a great responsibility for the hopes of PNG rest on the shoulders of five-eighth Ase Boas. A three-time Kumuls Test representative, Boas may be tasked with the vast majority of PNG's playmaking with his younger brother Watson in doubt after copping a head knock in the grand final.
The history: Not surprisingly this is the first meeting between Penrith and PNG in a concept that has thrown up some surprising and some lop-sided results since its introduction in 2014. The Panthers participated in the first NRL State Championship when they met the Cairns-based Northern Pride who consisting of a bunch of part-timers and with a little help from Ethan Lowe, Ben Spina and Patrick Kaufusi, beat a Panthers team boasting Waqa Blake, the Naiqama boys, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Kevin Kingston 32-28. Queensland's dominance continued a year later when the free-wheeling Ipswich Jets flummoxed Newcastle to the tune of 26-12 before the Illawarra Cutters exacted some revenge for the NSW teams with a 54-12 thumping of Burleigh last year.
NRL.com predicts: A game of two very contrasting styles, the key will be whether the Panthers can come away with points from the opportunities they will undoubtedly be given. Expect a nervous start from the PNG boys but if they can maintain touch as they settle into their work then they will create plenty of chances of their own. Where the hard-running Hunters forwards wore out their Falcons opposites last Sunday, the same should not be expected of a powerful Panthers pack led by Viliame Kikau, Sitaleki Akauola and Moses Leota. Panthers by 16 points.