Penrith Panthers coach Ivan Cleary has made significant changes to the side that got beaten by Parramatta last weekend – and it is a team line-up to be excited about.
After being clearly out-enthused and out-played by the Eels last weekend, Cleary has returned to what has been a proven formula up front – Tim Grant and Sam McKendry starting in the front row, with Nigel Plum and Jeremy Latimore back to the interchange bench.
The move is almost certainly designed to give the Panthers some much-needed grunt early in the game, and lay the platform for later in the contest when James Segeyaro comes off the bench to add some spark in the latter part of the first half.
Grant’s inclusion as the starting front rower is amazing given he was dropped to the NSW Cup last weekend. His future has been under a huge cloud of late, too, so it’s a big piece of positive news to see him back in the side.
Josh Mansour returns from injury, which will give the side plenty of power out wide, while Dallin Watene-Zelezniak replaces the injured David Simmons on the other wing. While Simmons offers composure and a great leap, Watene-Zelezniak is a speedster and fans who’ve watched him star in the lower grades would be excited about his first grade debut against the Raiders.
The biggest news however is the return of Peter Wallace in the number seven jumper. For just the second time this season, Wallace and Jamie Soward will partner together in the halves – it’s what Cleary wants and needs, even though Isaac John is an admirable replacement when needed.
Canberra were impressive against South Sydney last weekend but had the Rabbitohs been totally on their game and not dropped so much ball in the first half, the scoreline may have looked very different. In fact, had Nathan Merritt not dropped the ball while attempting to score a try that would have brought Souths back within six points, the entire result may have been different.
The Raiders can certainly play powerful footy on their day, but on paper, Penrith have them covered this weekend.
“The Raiders have a lot of strike power with Milford at the back and their centres,” said Panthers centre Dean Whare.
“We’ve got to try and stop their forwards first before they give the opportunity to their outside backs to do some work. I remember the game we played against the Raiders last year, we wanted to win more than they did. Hopefully it’s a hot day on Saturday and we can get the joy there.”
The Panthers have won both their matches at home this season and according to co-captain Kevin Kingston, are keen to continue that good form.
“We talked about it all pre-season, playing well in front of our home fans,” he said.
“I think Canberra’s forward pack is really strong. Their outside backs are getting a lot of praise at the moment but their forwards have been the most impressive of the league.”
Kingston is wrong there, perhaps due to modesty. Penrith’s pack is stronger than that of Canberra and if every player is on their game, the Raiders won’t stand a chance when it comes to the forward battle.
When Matthew Elliott was coaching Penrith, one of the big criticisms was his lack of response to losses.
Very rarely did players get dropped for poor form; which meant very rarely were they held accountable for the results being experienced on the field.
Under the Ivan Cleary regime, nobody is safe. That’s been proven time and time again.
Whilst it can rock the boat sometimes, it also ensures a team that is competitive, switched on and aware of the challenge ahead of them.
After last week’s slip-up, I’m confident the Panthers have what it takes to record their third win of the season this weekend.
Tip: Panthers by 24