A summer-long slog during pre-season. Constant reshuffling within the playing ranks. Moments of elation and anguish over six months of toil. It has all led to this Sunday for the ISP Panthers who battle Wyong Roos for glory in the Grand Final of the Intrust Super Premiership NSW competition.
An esteemed coaching effort from Garth Brennan led his side to the title-decider despite only being able to call upon a handful of core players on a consistent basis, including competition top-scorer Darren Nicholls and devastating edge-man Jed Cartwright.
They were complemented by stand-out talents from the Holden Cup, including Liam Martin, and NRL-calibre players such as Mitch Rein, Sitaleki Akauola and Viliame Kikau, to eventually finish the season third on the ISP ladder.
The Panthers booked their spot in the Grand Final with a heart-stopping 16-12 win over Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, which saw the Panthers defend a slender lead with twelve men after Tony Satini was sin-binned for a professional foul.
They face a Wyong side that finished as minor premiers - despite the Panthers scoring more tries and conceding over 100 points less - and sealed their passage through to the decider with a 16-12 win over the Warriors.
Brennan has been afforded the rare luxury of naming an unchanged line-up from last weekend after two key players managed to shrug off leg injuries sustained during the game.
Enigmatic five-eighth Jarome Luai is deemed fit enough to start after walking from the field with a knee injury, while Martin takes his place after recovering from an ankle injury.
Roos Coach Rip Taylor is also able to name an unchanged side that includes Jayden Nikorima, Mitchell Cornish and Eloni Vunakece who have all tasted first grade with affiliate club Sydney Roosters. Former Panther Chris Smith is named to start from the bench.
Joseph Manu is included in the Roosters squad for their NRL Preliminary Final but is expected to be at Taylor’s disposal.
This Sunday will prove to be a high-stakes tie-breaker after both sides finished the season with a win apiece in their two clashes.
The Panthers were dominant in their 32-10 thumping of the Roos in Round 4 when the likes of NRL graduates Tyrone May and Dylan Edwards played their part. Familiar contributors Rein, Nicholls and Cartwright also scored en-route to victory.
Their second meeting came in Round 21 when the Panthers looked to be on track for a double over the Roos until Matthew Ikuvalu left them stunned with a late quick-fire double to snatch a 24-22 win that all but sealed their minor premiership.