LAST SAY: Griffin defends unbeaten streak as a sell-out Dragons' clash looms
Panthers coach Anthony Griffin has defended ongoing doubts over the validity of Penrith's seven game unbeaten streak.
Griffin, who turned 51 yesterday, is hoping that his young side can deliver the perfect gift with a club equaling record eighth consecutive win that will seal a back-to-back spot in the finals for the first time since 2003-04.
The Panthers have beaten just two top eight teams all season and have not a current top five team at all in 2017.
But while Penrith's 11 wins from their last 13 have largely stemmed from beating teams outside the top eight, Griffin says that they have played a number of these teams when they were faced with the need to win in order to keeping their finals hope alive.
And Griffin makes a fair point when dissecting Penrith's current unbeaten streak:
1) Penrith 16-8 v Manly: The Panthers rebounded from a horror 42-14 hiding against South Sydney to inflict the first away loss of the season on a Manly side that was in third position and four wins in front of Penrith, yet have lost 4 of their last 6 games since.
2) Penrith 34-22 v NZ: The Panthers went into the Warriors clash having already lost captain Matt Moylan to injury before losing stand-in skipper Trent Merrin inside 25 minutes and regained the lead, keeping the Warriors scoreless in the process once Corey Harawira-Naera returned from a stint in the sin-bin.
3) Penrith 24-16 v Gold Coast: The Panthers came up against a Titans side that despite having won three i a row including their second win of the season over the defending premiers, Cronulla, failed to exploit Matt Moylan's hamstring flareup. The Titans never recovered from this loss.
4) Penrith 16-8 v Canterbury: Despite their poor form, the Bulldogs were still a mathematical chance of making the finals and approached this game as if it was a finals game, hoping to catch Penrith on the hop given their five-day turnaround.
5) Penrith 28-14 v Wests Tigers: Despite coming 15th, the Tigers came into this game playing their best footy of the season under former Panthers coach Ivan Cleary, whose side in recent weeks have beaten Manly and the Gold Coast while taking Cronulla, Sydney Roosters, Parramatta and North Queensland to the wire.
6) Penrith 24-16 v North Queensland: The Panthers may have been up against an injury plagued Cowboys outfit who still had enough big guns playing that took them to a 16-6 lead before the Panthers wore them down for a morale boosting comeback win.
7) Penrith 26-22 v Canberra: A stirring late comeback win in the nations' capital against an in-form Raiders outfit that was suddenly playing the footy that many thought would take them to a title and with everything to play for in regards to a finals spot too. The win saw Penrith complete a double over Canberra for the first time since 2014.
"We've both got everything to play for and we've been in this situation for five or six weeks now where (not only) we've had to play for our season but also be playing other teams that are on their last chance as well, Griffin responded.
"The Bulldogs, the Titans and we went to New Zealand and had to play them over there in a similar situation so it's nothing new to us.
"A good tough win last week against Canberra (that) took an extra day to freshen up from.
"It could have gone either way but our defensive resilience in the middle of that second half, kept us in range.
"That was the most pleasing aspect for us as a team that we were strong enough to withstand that then come back and win.
"But the stakes just gets a little bit bigger every week and it's nice to be involved in these big games.
But Griffin also declared he isn't worried about the significance of the fact that a win over the Dragons will equal the club record for most consecutive wins (eight) set in 2003 and sees today's clash as against a side that at one point earlier in the season led the competition, as being Penrith's toughest test for some time.
"It's going to be a huge match. It's going to be a real war out there (today) I'd imagine and we're just trying to knuckle down and concentrating on getting the two points," Griffin declared.
"We're aware that obviously we're playing well and managing to string some wins together.
"But the only thing that's important are the two competition points.
"If we happen to achieve something else through getting the win that's nice but it's a real focus on the Dragons.
A win for the Panthers will see them move above Cronulla on points differential into fifth place going into the final round of the season.
But while the Panthers are set to welcome back Peter Wallace (hand), they will have to do it again without Matt Moylan, who picked up a new hamstring injury in last week's win over Canberra and is not expected to return until the finals, with Tyrone May his replacement at five-eighth.
"Obviously you want Moylan there but it is what it is," Griffin said.
"We've had key position injuries but thankfully as a squad we've battled though that and been able to overcome that a few times this year in big games.
"We haven't really had a settled squad all year but we're getting nice and balanced now except for Matt this week..
"This one's a bit bigger again but we've got a lot of faith in Tyrone May and the rest of the squad to be able to get the job done for us.
"Tyrone's a really good kid who we've had coming through our juniors and it's lovely to see him on the big stage.
Today's blockbuster clash represents the first opportunity for Penrith fans to pack Pepper Stadium since Round One, 2015 when nearly 19,000 attended the season-opener against Canterbury.
But while Penrith's average home attendances have dipped from 13,573 in 2016 to 12,383 in 2017, Panthers CEO says all considering he is happy with this season's crowds and is confident the match will be a sell-out despite the distractions of the Mayweather / McGregor fight and the Penrith Show being in full swing across the road.
"Not disappointed at all. The only games we get disappointed about is if you are playing on a Thursday or if you are playing on a Friday night at 6pm, which versus Newcastle we only got 10,000 for, but 10,000 for that time is a good crowd to date," Fletcher told Nepean News.
"We've all but sold out for today. There will only be GA's available on the hill come kick off time so it will be a sell-out crowd for sure.
"But I'd be asking our fans not to leave it to the last minute to get there.
"Get there a little bit early. Get your seats, get into the ground and cheer your heads off.
"We want our fans there cheering there and trying to influence the referee like the Canberra crowd did to us last week when they got a 8-3 penalty count. I'd like to get the same result for us.
"The more we win the bigger they (the crowds) will get."
Photos: 77 Media
PENRITH V ST GEORGE-ILLAWARRA: THE FACTS
OVERALL: PLAYED 31 WON 12 LOST 19 (DRAGONS WINNING THE LAST 3)
AT PEPPER STADIUM: PLAYED 14 WON 8 LOST 6 (PENRITH HAVE WON THE LAST 3 - DRAGONS' LAST WIN AT PEPPER BEING BACK IN 2009)
PENRITH LOOKING FOR BACK-TO-BACK FINALS FIRST TIME SINCE 2003-04.
GRIFFIN 1ST COACH TO QUALIFY PENRITH TO BACK-TO-BACK FINALS IN OPENING TWO SEASONS AS COACH SINCE GOULD (1990-91)
ALSO BECOMES JUST THE 4TH PENRITH COACH (SHEENS, WILLEY AND GOULD) TO ACHIEVE WINNING SEASONS IN FIRST TWO YEARS AS PANTHERS COACH.
PENRITH LOOKING FOR SEVEN WINS IN A ROW FOR THE THIRD TIME OVERALL AND FIRST SINCE 2005-06
ANTHONY GRIFFIN TRAILS PAUL McGREGOR 2-1 IN HEAD-TO-HEAD CLASHES
TYSON FRIZZELL PLAYS HIS 100TH NRL GAME AS A DRAGON.
PAUL VAUGHAN 5 TRIES FROM 9 GAMES V PENRITH.
LEESON AH MAU LOOKING FOR 50TH WIN AS A DRAGON, GARETH WIDDOP TRYING TO AVOID 50TH NRL LOSS V PENRITH.
TARIQ SIMS HAS WON 5 OF 6 GAMES PLAYED V PENRITH, HIS BEST CLUB RECORD.