Cleary injury provides opportunities galore

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Reagan Campbell-Gillard needs to have a big game against the Cowboys. Photo: Megan Dunn

That Bulldogs game… you could kind of feel it coming.

While losing is never an ideal result, perhaps Penrith’s failure to come from behind and win for a third consecutive week will teach the side much more than another miracle finish would have.

The slow starts… they simply need to stop. The better sides, like the Cowboys this week, won’t let you back in the contest as easily as the Eels, Rabbitohs and Bulldogs did.

But of course Penrith face bigger problems now – Nathan Cleary has joined Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Sam McKendry and Tim Browne on the sidelines, and while certainly not fatal to Penrith’s season, it will create an enormous challenge over the next 10 or so weeks.

Perhaps opportunity, not challenge, is the better word.

Opportunities… there’s plenty of those.

Jarome Luai gets his shot at first grade. The wraps on this kid are huge.

James Maloney gets the chance to lead the side around the park, something he did at Cronulla as the dominant half in 2016 and 2017.

And the side as a whole gets an opportunity to come together and show plenty of spirit in tackling the adversity thrown at them as a result of losing their best player.

An injured Nathan Cleary watches the second half from the sideline last week. Photo: NRL Photos

The good news is that Cleary will be back mid-way through the premiership campaign. If you were ever going to be forced to spend a few months on the sideline during the season, now is probably the right time.

The team’s task for the next 10 weeks is to win as many games as possible and keep Penrith in the fight for when Cleary returns. Even if the Panthers can win half of the games they play without their star halfback, it will put them in good stead to charge towards the Finals.

The Panthers are far from a one-man team and with an experienced head like Maloney guiding them around the park, it’s unlikely that the wheels will fall off despite what the naysayers may claim.

All of that said, the side does indeed face an uphill battle against the Cowboys. Losses to Brisbane and Melbourne in the last fortnight have North Queensland desperate for a win and back at 1300 SMILES Stadium, they will be difficult to beat.

I thought they were too rushed in attack against the Storm last week; but I’d expect them to be better against Penrith, especially now that Michael Morgan has brushed away the cobwebs after playing his first game of the season.

The danger men are obvious – Johnathan Thurston, Morgan and man mountain Coen Hess, who has turned into something of a try-scoring machine for the Cowboys in recent times.

Panthers coach Anthony Griffin is hoping his side can hold their own against the Cowboys. Photo: Megan Dunn

But the Panthers have their own big men to make life difficult for the Cowboys and it’s important that James Tamou, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Moses Leota stand up and be counted in this one.

An upset win in Townsville? Stranger things have happened. I’m tipping Penrith purely because I believe this side has the guts and determination to fight its way through these next 10 weeks without Cleary and remain in title contention. Whatever the end result, Penrith will give a good account of themselves in this one.

Tip: Panthers by 1

Penrith play North Queensland at 1300 SMILES Stadium on Thursday, March 29 at 8pm. 

Troy Dodds

Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor.

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