And so it begins – the second half of a season that promised so much, yet at times has appeared as awkward as a ride in an elevator with Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
After a promising start, Penrith’s season has been decimated by injury and the result is that the side currently sits outside of the top eight and has very little to show in terms of consistent good form.
Only bottom placed Manly has scored less points than the Panthers this season, proving just how decimated Penrith’s halves have been with constant personnel changes resulting in a point scoring drought.
The good thing about a bye weekend is that it offers you the opportunity to reset your season, take stock and start over.
And while coach Ivan Cleary wouldn’t want a completely clean slate going into the second half of the year (there have been some highlights, after all) it is obvious that he would have drawn a line in the sand over the past two weeks and declared that it’s time to get serious.
Injuries remain a problem at the Panthers but the time for excuses is over. The 17 blokes who run out in that Panthers jumper each week need to do so with pride, passion and determination. They need to be prepared to overcome the adversity that has followed this footy club over the past two seasons.
This weekend against the Bulldogs, the Panthers should welcome back key playmaker Jamie Soward, who missed the match against Melbourne due to a shoulder injury.
He said on Monday that he remained in doubt for Saturday’s clash but was named on Tuesday and is hopeful of playing.
It is vitally important that the Panthers have both Soward and Peter Wallace on the park together.
Wallace struggles without Soward alongside him because he doesn’t quite have the ability to jump on opportunities and create tries and chances out of nothing. Conversely, when Wallace isn’t there, Soward almost tries too hard and the control of the game can fall from his grasp.
Josh Mansour hasn’t been named to make his return but there’s a whisper around that he could push Waqa Blake out of the side at the last minute.
Mansour would provide the Panthers a massive boost against a forward pack that is the biggest in the NRL.
Canterbury coach Des Hasler is back to playing mind games ahead of this game, refusing to name his State of Origin players including halfback Trent Hodkinson.
You can almost guarantee that if fit, they’ll all play come Saturday.
As it stands, the Bulldogs’ starting pack is ferocious. Aiden Tolman, Sam Kasiano, Antonio Kaufusi, Frank Pritchard and Greg Eastwood, along with lively hooker Michael Lichaa, will look to run over the top of the Panthers in the early stages.
It’s a dire warning to the Panthers given they struggled in the forward battle against both the Eels and Storm.
While the Bulldogs have leaked plenty of points this season (300 from 13 matches), their pack is second to none when it comes to size and it doesn’t get any easier when their bench players come on.
With rain likely at ANZ Stadium, every metre up the middle will be important.
Yes, the Bulldogs have size and strength but the Panthers are desperate to restore some lost pride. It should be a cracker.
Tip: Panthers by 7
– Troy Dodds