Everything on the line as Finals arrive a week early

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Tyrone May.

We’ve all heard about the different scenarios and equations that could play out this weekend, but let’s focus purely on Penrith’s clash with Manly at Brookvale Oval on Saturday night, because regardless of how things play out, the Panthers need to desperately avoid finishing the regular season with back to back losses.

After seven straight wins, the side was brought back to Earth with a thud last Sunday afternoon, out-muscled by a Dragons side that starved them of possession at crucial stages and aimed up in defence on their line. Penrith’s defence meanwhile left plenty to be desired and while they scrambled well at times the 46 missed tackles on the stat sheet were a major concern.

Injured: Dylan Edwards. Photo: Melinda Jane

With both Penrith and Manly sitting on 30 competition points, Saturday’s game couldn’t be more important. The Sea Eagles clearly have the advantage, playing at the formidable Brookvale Oval and gaining some much-needed confidence out of a late golden point win over the Warriors in New Zealand on Sunday.

Both sides will be treating this like a Grand Final, knowing that their September dreams are on the line, but for Penrith proving their critics wrong is very much part of the storyline of this game. Plenty have said their seven match winning streak was soft given the opposition they faced, but beating the Sea Eagles in such an important game in the final round of the competition would surely silence some of those doubters.

I haven’t thought much of Manly over the past month but Trent Barrett will be telling his troops to put the past in the past and focus solely on the 80 minutes ahead of them. And with game breakers like Tom Trbojevic, Dylan Walker and Daly Cherry-Evans in their side, nobody can under-value what the Sea Eagles bring to the table.

Nathan Cleary. Photo: Melinda Jane

Losing Dylan Edwards is a crushing blow for Penrith, who have named Dean Whare at fullback this week. I don’t expect him to play there and would anticipate some late changes to the starting side on Saturday.

With Matt Moylan unlikely to return, Tyrone May and Nathan Cleary – one of the most inexperienced halves combinations in the NRL – will have to do the bulk of the work when it comes to creating try scoring opportunities.

I’d like to see Penrith’s more mobile forwards in Corey Harawira-Naera, Bryce Cartwright and Isaah Yeo really step up this weekend. Yeo had a dynamite first half of the season but has been a little quieter in recent weeks, while Cartwright has eased his way back into first grade after what’s been a shocking year both on and off the field but needs a breakout game to really announce his return. There would be no better time to do it than in an important game such as this one.

Bryce Cartwright in action against the Dragons last week. Photo: Melinda Jane

The fact that Penrith have missed the second most tackles in the competition this year (behind only the Wests Tigers) concerns me heading into a game where defence will be key, especially when it comes to the for-and-against battle being played out in the bottom half of the top eight. It’s such an important game and I expect it go down to the wire.

Tip: Panthers by 4.

Penrith and Manly play at Lottoland on Saturday, September 2 at 5.30pm.

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