Ivan Cleary and Des Hasler – the two coaches that faced off in last season’s NRL grand final – will do battle again in the opening round of 2012. Only this time, they find themselves at the helm of two completely different clubs.
For the Panthers, the acquisition of Cleary signals the beginning of a new era, and it all kicks off on Saturday night at Centrebet Stadium.
Plucked from the Warriors by new general manager Phil Gould for his ability to develop young talent, the cogs are already turning at the grassroots level as Cleary leads a new coaching team attempting to make the most of the huge junior nursery at Penrith’s disposal.
With that said, the fruits of those efforts are still a way off, and the line-up for this round 1 clash retains the core of the squad that endured a tumultuous 2011 season.
The backline has been the source of the most discussion in the pre-season, with Michael Gordon and Lachlan Coote’s battle for the fullback role making headlines.
Coote has been given the role for the time being, but pressure will mount quickly if he fails to perform in the opening rounds of the season.
Most fans would agree that Gordon is far more dangerous at fullback than on the wing, but his versatility has worked against him on this occasion.
Don’t be surprised, however, if Gordon starts at centre, with injury clouds still hanging over the heads of both Michael Jennings and Brad Tighe.
Travis Burns and Luke Walsh once again wear the six and seven. These two have been side by side for three seasons now – longer than any halves pairing in the league, except for the Dragons’ Jamie Soward and Ben Hornby.
Walsh has announced he’s at 100 per cent fitness for the first time in over a year, and the pressure is now on the pair to repay the faith the club has shown them.
Meanwhile, after the departure of Petero Civoniceva and Trent Waterhouse, the Panthers’ pack has seen a bit more of a shake-up, with three new signings named in the forwards.
Cameron Ciraldo starts in the back row alongside established Panthers Luke Lewis and Nathan Smith, while Chris Armit and Clint Newton will come off the bench.
Tim Grant and Sam McKendry lead a front row rotation that will also include young powerhouse Dayne Weston and veteran Armit.
Disappointingly, Cleary has left out boom youngster Blake Austin from the starting 17, opting to name him on an extended beach. If injuries prevail, however, we may see Austin brought into the side at the last minute.
Whatever the case, both Cleary and Hasler will be looking to make an early statement at their respective new clubs. Make your way to Centrebet Stadium on Saturday night and help ensure it’s Ivan’s statement that’s heard loudest.