By their own standards, Hornby Panthers’ 2018 Massetti Cup campaign has been short on the usual swagger, dominance and consistency we’ve become accustomed to. But with their squad belatedly near full-strength again, the club is well-placed to end a five-year title drought.

The Panthers only lost three games during the regular season – two hard-fought defeats to unbeaten archrivals Linwood and a four-point loss to Northern – but were ultimately edged out for the second spot they occupied in 2016-17 by the Bulldogs on for-and-against.

Four patchy wins over bottom-four opposition by six points or less proved critical in the make-up of the ladder heading into the finals. Hornby looked set to prevail in its points differential battle with Northern in the final round when it held a 28-point halftime lead over Halswell, but the Panthers were outscored in the second half in an eventual 36-20 result – handing second to the Bulldogs.

Undeterred, the Panthers turned in a devastating sudden-death semi-final performance last Saturday to swamp the Hornets 50-6. The nine-tries-to-one demolition has set the scene for a massive preliminary final showdown with the Bulldogs at Kaiapoi this weekend.

Hornby coach Jed Lawrie credits the overall improvement of the Massetti Cup teams and a frustrating injury toll for the Panthers coming back to the pack a shade during 2018.

“It’s a hard one – the bottom teams are getting stronger, so you’re seeing the results change a wee bit,” Lawrie said.

“But we’ve used 31 players in the prems this year, so we’ve blooded a lot of players.

“(The semi-final win) showed what you can do when you put out your full-strength side. We had two weeks to train for that game so that really helped.

“We want to try and build off finishing third, so hopefully we’ll go out (this) week and put in another good performance.”

Momentum is critical at this time of the season. While Lawrie would have preferred a top-two finish, he believes the Panthers’ romp against the Hornets has provided the ideal platform for a charge at grand final glory.

The Bulldogs, who have rarely been anything less than outstanding this season, are regrouping from a 48-10 hammering at the hands of the Keas in the major semi.

“We’ve been in that situation before, finishing second and it can dent you, a good, hard loss to Linwood,” Lawrie admitted.

“Hopefully this momentum carries us on to next week.”

The Panthers’ bid for a third straight grand final appearance will be spearheaded by veteran forward trio Corey Lawrie, who only played two games in the opening 12 rounds, captain James Baxendale and rugged, skilful prop Rulon Nutira.

“(We’re) blessed for experience there, and Rulon and ‘Baxy’ when they start controlling the game in the middle you see how threatening they are,” the coach said.

“It’s a luxury and a very good position to be in.”

And there’s another evergreen forward who has proved a crucial addition to the Panthers’ cause.

As he did in 2017, former Canterbury Bulls captain Jonny Limmer answered a late-season SOS from the Hornby prems – and shapes as a genuine finals X-factor. The 39-year-old came off the bench against Halswell and capped a dazzling dummy-half display with a brilliant solo try.

“We had Tryone Arona, Tyler Amataiti and Corey Lawrie all go down with serious injuries, and it was no guarantee they were going to make it back in time (for the finals),” Jed Lawrie explained.

“Jonny has slotted in perfect to be honest. He’s come in and fitted in so well, you can see how powerful his running game is.”

At the other end of the experience scale, rookie halfback Brad Campbell has been a revelation. The tough, diminutive tyro – who played 18s for Hornby last year – has eased the playmaking pressure that had previously weighed on Baxendale and Corey Lawrie, who both filled in at halfback during last year’s finals series.

“Something we’ve missed for a long time is a conventional seven. Brad’s like a freight train sometimes, he defends well, he attacks well – it’s awesome having a conventional seven again,” the coach lauded.

“I think ‘Baxy’ liked wearing the No.7 jersey, but (it’s better) having him back in the middle with Rulon. We’re set up with our spine across the board, it’s strong all the way through.”

Capitalising on the classy work of their inside men are a powerful outside-back contingent: Tauvale Tauvale, Charlie Charlie, Dene Grace and Willie Tafua.

Charlie and Tauvale have scored 19 tries between them this season, while all four players found their way onto the scoresheet last Saturday as it rained long-range tries at Leslie Park.

But opportunities are almost certain to be scarcer this weekend.

Led by front-rower Chris Bamford, who has scored a ludicrous 19 tries in 15 games this year, the Bulldogs have danger-men across the field and will be backed up by a Murphy Park throng starved of finals footy for many years.

After the honours were shared by Hornby and Northern during the regular season – the Panthers prevailing 20-16 in Round 3 before the Bulldogs turned the tables 24-20 in Round 10 – a tight, desperately-fought preliminary final looms.

But it’s a fight the Panthers are primed for with most of their big guns back on deck.

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