South Sydney’s premiership campaign won’t be lost on a hot March evening in Penrith but as the Rabbitohs prepare to face the Panthers on Thursday night the match feels as weighty as any Round 2 match ever can be.

The Rabbitohs are a popular pick to take out the title in 2023 and with Penrith stumbling to a loss in their season opener against Brisbane, the two-time defending champions don’t quite seem the unstoppable force of recent years.

A spate of injuries in the forwards means South Sydney will be up against it but with Latrell Mitchell declared fit to play, all things still feel possible for the Rabbitohs.

Mitchell himself lit the fuse for the blockbuster when he claimed there were some “cracks in the windscreen” for Penrith after losing to the Broncos last week and to St Helens in the World Club Challenge.

“He’s spent some time with the Penrith boys on the World Cup tour so he had some fun with them, but we’re under no illusions how tough this is going to be,” said Rabbitohs coach Jason Demetriou.

“They lost a game in Round 1 at home; when was the last time they lost at home? And they only lost by a point, so there’s a long way to go before we talk about chinks in what’s a very impressive armour.”

The Panthers and Rabbitohs have forged quite a history in recent years – Penrith have ended South Sydney’s season in each of the last three finals series, including a narrow win in the 2021 grand final.

But Demetriou said his side would not draw on the memory of those encounters and instead focus on themselves as they look to condemn Penrith to back-to-back defeats for the first time in almost four years.

“We know how hard it’s going to be but our process doesn’t care who’s on the field or who we’re playing against,” Demetriou said.

“We have to be really professional with how we approach the game and we have to do the things we worked on through the pre-season and get our game on.

“The boys know their role. They know what they have to do.”

For the Rabbitohs to get the cash they’ll need another mighty effort from the likes of Shaquai Mitchell and Davvy Moale in the middle of the field.

The unheralded duo were excellent in last week’s win over Cronulla, especially given Tevita Tatola and Jai Arrow both had early nights due to injury.

Tatola will return from concussion for next week’s clash with the Roosters while Arrow’s hamstring problem is not as bad as first thought, but until they’re back it’ll be on Mitchell and Moale to fill the gaps – a tall order against Penrith’s ferocious pack, but one Demetriou believes his charges can handle.

“They’re going to have to. I thought Davvy did a great job to start against a top side, he hadn’t done that before, so to do what he did at the start of the game was impressive,” Demetriou said.

“Those two didn’t just play first grade, they stood up, they were very strong through the middle third and that allowed blokes like Cam to stay on the field and do what they did.”

Where South Sydney can give Penrith plenty of trouble is with their sparkling attacking game, which is looking more balanced than ever after Lachlan Ilias’s star turn at halfback last week.

It’s only early days in his sophomore year, but Ilias is looking more confident and composed, and his growth as a player should ensure there’s less pressure on the Rabbitohs vaunted left-edge attack.

“I’ve seen him confident, knowing his role. He’s really clear. His evolution has been there for everyone to see but it’s still early days, he’s still got plenty of improvement in him and that’s what’s really exciting.

“I felt like our right edge grew last year and I think that comes naturally with the evolution of players who are becoming more comfortable and elite first graders. Keaon Koloamatangi has been to a World Cup, so has Campbell Graham, and they’ve come back with a renewed confidence and really understanding how important they are to the team.

“As long as we have that threat on both sides, and Cookie (Damien Cook) in the middle of the field, we’re a hard team to defend against.”