Panthers battle defending premiers

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For the first time this season, the tip at the end of this column will be for the opposition rather than the Penrith Panthers.

That’s not to say I don’t have faith in the boys, particularly after Monday night’s brave 35-34 win over the Broncos.

But the circumstances that will lead in to Saturday afternoon’s clash with last year’s premiers all seem to work against the Panthers and if they come away from Allianz Stadium with a victory, it will be one of the best the club has produced all year – no matter how it comes.

The first challenge facing the Panthers on Saturday is the short turnaround after playing on Monday night. And Monday night’s game was no easy contest – the Panthers, down to one player on the bench at one stage, were out on their feet in the final 15 minutes and the recovery from such a bruising encounter will be extremely tough for Ivan Cleary to manage.

He admitted as much in the post-match press conference on Monday, saying he wasn’t sure how the side would cope with the turnaround.

Teams backing up from Monday nights are invariably a little worse for wear the following week and unfortunately, the Panthers face a double whammy with the Roosters having the bye last weekend. They’ve had 14 days since they last took the field and with the Origin period now over, they surely would have used the break to re-focus on the run home as they attempt to defend their title.

To make matters worse, during those two weeks the Roosters would have thought about little else than redeeming themselves after giving up a 24-0 lead to be beaten by lowly Cronulla a fortnight ago. It was an embarrassing performance and coach Trent Robinson won’t stand for a repeat effort.

Also ensuring Penrith face an uphill battle this Saturday is yet further disruption in the halves. Coach Cleary will use his third combination in as many weeks after Tyrone Peachey left the field on Monday night with a torn pectoral muscle injury that has most likely ruled him out for the remainder of the 2014 season.

Monday night’s game was the third straight encounter in which Cleary has been forced to make mid-match changes to his halves pairing – the fact that the side has won two of those matches deserves to be applauded.

With so many factors working against Penrith heading into this game, just a competitive showing should be enough to make fans happy. As long as Cleary and the squad can take something out of the game, they’ll be well placed to defeat the Sharks in Bathurst next weekend.

But if Penrith are to surprise the Roosters, where will the win come from?

There’s no doubt that the answer lies in Jamie Soward and Matt Moylan, who were simply brilliant on Monday night against the Broncos. Both are without doubt the top contenders for Penrith’s player of the year award at season’s end, and both have gone about silencing their critics, particularly in the last fortnight.

Soward relished the opportunity to skipper the side last weekend while Moylan clearly hasn’t heard of the term ‘second year syndrome’.

The only problem in Soward’s game is his defence and the Broncos certainly sent plenty of attack his way on Monday night. I’d expect the Roosters to do the same on Saturday, with Sonny Bill Williams likely to find himself running at the Soward and Jamal Idris defensive combination more than once during the game. That’s why Penrith’s defence must be particularly solid during this game – keeping the Roosters out of the danger area and well entrenched in their own half should be part of the game plan.

There’s no doubt this will be tough, but the Panthers have proven more than once this season that they can rise above adversity – perhaps, just perhaps they’ll do it again on Saturday.

Tip: Roosters by 4.

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