Hornby Panthers have consecutive grand final losses to atone for when they take on Linwood Keas in the big one for the third straight year at Rugby League Park this Sunday, but captain James Baxendale has a bit extra to make up for after fate conspired to put him 18,000 kilometres away from last year’s decider.

In a 2017 season ravaged by wet weather, the CRL grand final was ultimately pushed back a week. Baxendale had an overseas trip booked for the week after the original grand final date – and eventually made the agonising decision to leave his beloved Panthers to take on the Keas without him.

“It was a pretty hard decision, but it was just one of those things. I was doing Sail Croatia with my mates, so it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Baxendale laments.

“I’m pretty happy to be here this year, no holiday plans so I’m all on-board – pretty stoked.”

The Panthers fought gamely without their inspirational skipper, leading by 12 points during the first half before being run down 34-20 in a cracking grand final at Linfield Park.

“I pulled up The Press article and I saw the Linwood team photo and I was pretty disappointed. I had a few beers after that.

“But we get another crack at them and hopefully it’s third time lucky.”

Baxendale, better known as a back-rower throughout a long and successful career in Canterbury, was the world’s biggest halfback for most of 2017 and Hornby missed his direction in the halves, as well as his leadership.

The emergence of young livewire Brad Campbell in the No.7 this year has allowed Baxendale to revert to the pack, but an injury to long-serving playmaker Sean Spooner could see him line up in the spine again this weekend.

The goalkicking utility was devastating at lock in the Panthers’ 50-6 pummelling of Halswell in the elimination semi-final but was equally influential in the pivot role in a gripping 16-6 defeat of Northern in the preliminary final, scoring a crucial try.

“We’ll give Sean as much time as he needs but if I have to fill the role again, I will. Ideally I’d like to be playing in the middle of the park again,” Baxendale says.

“You’ve still got a bit of controlling to do of the outsides (at five-eighth) and as loose forward I sort of do as I please and chip in as well. It’s a bit of a different role.”

The Rockcote Canterbury Bulls captain and NZ Residents rep has played in a staggering seven CRL premiership grand finals – the first way back in 2005 – and has tasted sweet victory five times.

He scored tries in the 2006, 2009 and 2012-13 triumphs, as well as booting the winning penalty goal in extra-time as skipper when the Panthers edged the Hornets in 2013.

But the Keas’ recent dominance on the big stage has made the veteran hungrier than ever to get his mitts on the Pat Smith Trophy and end the Panthers’ five-year title drought.

“We went through a pretty red-hot run for a while, I think we won four out of five years, so we got used to winning grand finals.

“It’s been a bit of the opposite (in recent years), tasting defeat, and it’s not as nice. This time around we’re going to give it our best and hopefully get the chocolates.”

The Panthers were below their blockbusting best for much of the regular season, recording a string of tight wins over bottom-half opposition to ultimately land in third spot.

But the momentum the side has garnered from a pair of rousing finals performances – particularly defensively, conceding just two tries in 160 minutes of sudden-death footy – has the Panthers primed to turn the tables on undefeated Linwood.

“To be honest our season’s been pretty patchy, just scraping by and doing what we have to do,” Baxendale concedes.

“But the last couple of weeks we’ve really banded together and started to perform. That defensive effort on the weekend (against the Bulldogs) gave us a lot of belief going into Sunday’s game.”

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