After what has seemed like an eternity, the Penrith Panthers will return to the park this weekend to take on Newcastle at Hunter Stadium in a game that will play a part in determining the side’s fate this season.
The Panthers find themselves in the middle of a run of away matches and after losing a game they should have won against Cronulla a fortnight ago, the importance of picking up at least two points during this time on the road is extremely high.
Penrith are clinging to eighth spot by the slimmest of margins and will almost certainly fall outside of the top eight if the Knights emerge victorious on Sunday.
Whether or not having such a long break between matches is a good or bad thing for the Panthers is a big unanswered question this weekend – though coach Ivan Cleary will already know the answer.
He’ll know if his side has responded in a positive fashion and cleared the pain of the loss to Cronulla, or if his squad is still hanging onto the bitter taste of that defeat – the hardest to take of the season so far.
The break certainly didn’t hinder players like Jamal Idris and Matt Moylan, who played exceptionally well for Country and City respectively last Sunday, producing arguably their best games of the year. If they can bring that form into their club football this weekend, the Panthers will certainly prove a handful for the Knights.
And Dean Whare was awesome in defence for New Zealand – on his day he can be one of the best defensive centres in the game and in fact Greg Inglis said on television this week that Whare was among the toughest players he’s had to face off against.
The opposition this weekend is no different to what the Panthers faced in the Shire two weeks ago – a team that is desperate, looking at this as a defining moment of their season.
You can be assured that Wayne Bennett would have used last weekend to draw a line in the sand. The side needs a fresh start after some poor results to start the season and the Alex McKinnon injury, which has understandably taken the focus away from week-to-week football.
The Knights have won just two matches this season and sit in second last position – wins at home against an inconsistent entity like Penrith are seen as crucial.
Penrith has already beaten Newcastle this season but the closeness of the NRL competition and the injuries suffered by the Knights on that day mean you can read little into such history, even it was only written a couple of months ago.
If the Panthers are to start winning, and start winning consistently, some small things have to change and improve.
James Segeyaro needs to provide the same sort of spark he was producing last season when he comes off the bench – he hasn’t been quite as effective this year.
Peter Wallace and Jamie Soward are doing a great job of leading a steady ship, but one of them needs to become a risk taker, a danger man in attack. At times, it’s just too predictable and while it’s far from being a long-term problem, the side just needs somebody to take an exciting attacking lead and create more opportunities.
One headache Ivan Cleary has this week is replacing Elijah Taylor – he’s a defensive machine, a quiet achiever and someone the Knights will be happy to know isn’t there on Sunday. Taylor will be missing the next four to six weeks so it’s important Cleary comes up with a workable, medium-term solution.
Penrith has improved immensely as a football team this year compared to last, but the side needs to start stringing wins together if it is going to be a real threat at the back end of the season. With Newcastle’s season precariously placed, this Sunday’s game is worth a lot more than two competition points.
The loser of this game, even so far out from September, could be facing a season without finals football.
Tip: Panthers by 4