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Souths to put Panthers’ fortress to test

You have to go back to a time when the words “COVID”, “isolation” and “close contacts” weren’t a part of everyday life to find when the Penrith Panthers last lost a home game.

Ivan Cleary’s side haven’t suffered defeat at Panthers Stadium since the back end of the 2019 season when they were dismantled by a Canberra side en route to the grand final.

Since then, their home form reads: played 18, won 18.

While the Panthers spent the final months of last season playing out of Queensland, their home ground has turned into something of a fortress.

As he prepares his side to travel west for Friday’s grand final rematch, South Sydney coach Jason Demetriou was acutely aware of the uphill battle the Rabbitohs face against the reigning premiers on their home turf.

“It’s a massive challenge,” Demetriou said on Thursday.

“Nobody has beaten them there since 2019 and we’ve got a test against the best.

“It’s an impressive record and they do what they do in most games and they’ve not lost many games away from home to be fair.

“They put you in tough areas and they’re pretty ruthless with their line-speed and their defence and they capitalise on their field position.”

The Panthers’ dominance isn’t just reflected in the NRL, either. You are hard pushed to find many losses at home over the last two years in reserve grade or below.

For Penrith centre Stephen Crichton, the wall of black in the crowd that greets opposing teams is what gives them an edge.

“I feel safe,” he said.

“They (the Panthers fans) give us good confidence when we come out for warm-ups and things like that.

“They really chant for us, which gives us a massive confidence boost, which is heaps good and the boys love playing here because it’s one of our last seasons (at the ground).”

Panthers Stadium is set to be redeveloped in the coming years, something which draws a fitting comparison with the regeneration project being undertaken by coach Cleary.

His son Nathan is back on deck on Friday but Penrith have barely missed a beat without the NSW Origin halfback and a host of other grand final stars.

Even after losing Paul Momirovski, Matt Burton and Kurt Capewell to rival clubs in the offseason and winger Brian To’o to injury, they are undefeated to start the season following victories over Manly, St George Illawarra and Newcastle.

Izack Tago, Taylan May and Jaeman Salmon have all slotted in without any issues.

Nevertheless, captain Isaah Yeo delivered an ominous warning to the Rabbitohs: the Panthers haven’t hit top gear yet.

“The last two weeks it feels like we still haven’t played (at the level) where we want to,” he said.

“I think we’ve got to the point now as a group here where that’s not an excuse so that we’re pretty disappointed about (our form) it.

“It’s nice to learn lessons while you’re winning. I’ve been on the other side when you’ve got to lose to learn lessons and that’s not much fun.

“It’s a big challenge and Souths are going to be very motivated so we need to make sure that what we’ve struggled with the last two weeks is rectified.”

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