Panthers' play-maker could be the key to grand finals

HE'S the other goal kicking play-maker in the headgear but unlike luckless Cowboy Johnathan Thurston, Jamie Soward is just one win away from taking his NRL team Penrith Panthers from also-rans into grand finalists and possibly even premiers.

When Penrith recruited Soward and Brisbane veteran Peter Wallace (out injured) the four-year deal offered to Soward raised eyebrows in some quarters.

But if the at times taciturn halfback can steer the Panthers to another against-the-odds win against the Bulldogs on Saturday, he'll be without question the NRL's buy of season.

Even if he doesn't, he's probably still the best pick up of 2014 under the new leadership of Phil Gould and coach Ivan Cleary, given Penrith finished 15th in 2012 and 10th last year.

When former Bronco Wallace went down with a ruptured ACL late last month, the blow was so big, Penrith, already reeling from injuries to key players, including his likely replacement Tyrone Peachey, was tipped to go down with him.

But instead of crumbling as many predicted the Panthers would, Soward grabbed the challenge and he, along with the likes of young fullback Matt Moylan, dangerous No.9 James Segeyaro and outside backs Jamal Idris and Josh Mansour have helped Penrith continue to defy the odds.

Soward is in the kind of form and frame of mind he was under master coach Wayne Bennett at the Dragons when they broke their premiership drought in 2010.

If anything, he's playing even better football, showing more leadership since Cleary heaped more responsibility on him with Wallace on the sidelines and his replacement Will Smith.

Having done it all in 2010, Soward is revelling in the occasion and the familiar territory and his players are following without regard to reputations.

Bennett noted at the start of the finals that his former general was again happy and in control of his game as he was at the Dragons in 2010.

"I don't know about needing to feel loved," noted Bennett, "but he certainly needs to feel valued.

"He just needs that, and most do."

Right now Soward is the most valued commodity at the foot of the mountains.

He can, though, be prickly and there's no doubt Bulldogs skipper and super sledger Michael Ennis, who copped some criticism for patting Melbourne, Queensland and Australian captain Cameron Smith on the head recently, will attempt to get under his skin at some stage.

Soward jokingly suggested his headgear would block out anything Ennis said to him during the clash.

"If I'm going out there listening to Michael Ennis, then I'm not concentrating on my job," Soward, a former NSW Origin teammate of Ennis, said.

"And that's an important factor for us to win on Saturday night.

"I've got to concentrate on my job."