If you look hard enough you can see the similarities between Panthers coach Anthony Griffin and country music crooner Kenny Rogers.
And this week Griffin very much became ‘The Gambler’ when he dumped halfback Jamie Soward to reserve grade, naming Bryce Cartwright and teenager Nathan Cleary in the halves for this Sunday’s game against Manly at Brookvale Oval.
Ironically, the ‘spine’ (1, 6, 7 and 9) that fans craved to see on the field so much over the past two years is fully available for selection this weekend, but only 50 per cent of them will be playing first grade. Even then, Peter Wallace is out of his favoured position, leaving Matt Moylan as the only survivor of the preferred spine.
Nobody can question the intent of Griffin’s decisions in the past two weeks. He clearly believes that James Segeyaro and Soward need time in reserve grade to fix whatever issues he feels can’t be addressed while maintaining their spots in the top grade.
But with the finals still a very real possibility for the Panthers this year, it is an almighty gamble by the quietly-spoken leader of the club.
Soward’s form may have been inconsistent at times this season, but his kicking game and experience can win you matches. He’s been forced to play with five separate halves partners and is now the fall guy for Penrith’s recent losses.
Griffin’s solution is to move Cartwright, who is still finding his way in the NRL, to five-eighth while 18-year-old Cleary will partner him at halfback.
The Panthers simply must beat Manly on Sunday and while the Sea Eagles will struggle to field a decent side after being decimated by injury, the fact that Penrith will start with one of the most inexperienced halves combinations in the NRL is enough to give the home side a sniff.
The Panthers are at risk of becoming the under-achievers of the NRL this year. On paper, they should be a premiership threat. Their last two games however have exposed significant vulnerabilities in the side’s attack, structure and defence particularly on the left hand side of the field.
Losing to Melbourne at AAMI Park is nothing to be ashamed of but the Panthers seemed to offer little resistance to Melbourne’s game plan of tearing through Penrith’s middle.
Starting props Sam McKendry and Reagan Campbell-Gillard struggled to make 100 metres between them, with Trent Merrin the only forward who really stood up for Penrith, clocking up 149 metres from 17 runs during his 68 minutes on the field.
McKendry is missing from this weekend’s team line-up due to a suspension for a shoulder charge late in the game.
Leilani Latu and Reagan Campbell-Gillard will start up front while Moses Leota makes his first grade debut off the interchange bench.
Griffin has rolled the dice, and on Sunday afternoon we’ll find out if his numbers come up.
If they don’t, we could be kissing goodbye to the prospects of finals football in season 2016.
Tip: Panthers by 8.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Senior Writer. He has more than 15 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.