Injuries and luck finally caught up with the Penrith Panthers on Monday night when they went down 24-10 to Melbourne at Sportingbet Stadium.
Significantly down on troops, the Panthers tried hard but were simply out-played by a Storm side that controlled the ruck and the tempo of the game from the outset.
Even though their attack was a little off, Melbourne knew the points would come eventually and stuck to the game plan of shutting down Jamie Soward – virtually Penrith’s only playmaker given the number of key players missing from this game.
Penrith’s discipline didn’t help – they completed 31 of 39 sets, made eight errors and produced 31 missed tackles.
Melbourne’s stats were not a whole lot better but they did aim up in defence and got the best of the 50/50 calls.
For coach Ivan Cleary, this week is about finding the delicate balance between getting his side up for a game against premiership powerhouse Manly and ensuring that he lays down the law about what’s needed at this time of the season.
Ill-discipline will cripple Penrith’s chances in the finals, if the injury crisis that has beset the club doesn’t claim them first. And it will play a big role against the Sea Eagles on Sunday too, with Manly not needing to be asked twice when given a chance to capitalise on mistakes at Brookvale Oval.
The trip to Brookvale is indeed a daunting task. The Panthers did win their last match there in 2013, but prior to that, the record has been poor.
The Panthers have only won at Brookvale twice in the last decade, but apart from a 30-0 thumping in 2012, they’ve always been competitive.
The side will hopefully welcome back James Segeyaro on Sunday and his influence is much-needed – the Panthers clearly missed his speed out of dummy half on Monday night. Kevin Kingston did an admirable job on Monday but the fraction of a second he holds the ball longer than Segeyaro had a big impact at key times during the game.
If Segeyaro doesn’t return, Cleary has a huge headache with Kingston revealing on Wednesday that he was injured in that Storm game and will miss the rest of the season. Adding to Penrith’s woes is that Jeremy Latimore was suspended for two games at the judiciary on Wednesday night.
Manly’s danger men are all over the field but it goes without saying that the halves pairing of Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans is the key to the side’s success. Penrith need to implement a game almost similar to that put in place against them by Melbourne on Monday night, that is, shut down the key man at any opportunity.
Penrith certainly have the forward pack to lay a good platform up the middle, though the defensive unit does need to be tighter and Adam Docker’s extraordinary missed tackle rate is becoming something of a concern. He missed six tackles on Monday night, five against the Cowboys and seven against the Dragons.
For the Panthers to win, they’ll need to attack Manly’s edges and that’s where a big game from Jamal Idris comes in.
He sent Cooper Cronk into the stratosphere with an incredible hit on Monday night and now it’s time for him to turn it on in attack.
It could be that Penrith’s run has finally come to an end. Injuries that probably equate to about $1.5 million of talent off the field, a long season of week-to-week football and the burden of being this season’s over-achievers may have finally caught up with a side that no matter what happens in these next two weeks, will play finals football.
But it could also be that Monday night’s loss was simply a stumbling block to greater success. After all, all three top sides lost last weekend – and nobody is prepared to write off the Rabbitohs or Sea Eagles just yet.
While the Warriors won’t be easy in the final round of the competition, the Panthers have the comfort of home to look forward to. And with the NRL’s rather silly rule of playing even the first week of the finals out of big stadiums, this is the last time they’ll have to face a ferocious away crowd at a suburban fortress.
Who knows, the surprises may continue.
Tip: Panthers by 6