Silencing their critics

Waqa Blake. Photo: Melinda Jane

A fortnight ago I wrote about the frightening prospect that Penrith’s Finals hopes could evaporate in the space of eight days, with clashes against Manly and the Warriors likely to determine their fate.

Underdogs in both games, the Panthers showed plenty of fight to collect four competition points and place themselves very much back in the race for a top eight spot.

As much as those two games could have killed off Penrith’s hopes, the next three have the prospect to almost confirm a spot in the post-season.

Home matches against Gold Coast, Canterbury and Wests Tigers in consecutive weeks give Penrith a real chance to reach 26 competition points by the time round 22 is complete. From there, the task would be to win two (but possibly just one) games to qualify for the Finals – a prospect that seemed to be slipping through the side’s fingers just a few weeks ago.

No matter what the scenario, Anthony Griffin will have his side focused on only one thing right now – beating the Titans at Pepper Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

In torrential conditions last week the Titans showed a tonne of spirit to down the defending Premiers 30-10. Regardless of the weather, the Titans showed plenty of smart play to take on a Sharks defensive line that kept coming up too quickly – the majority of their tries a direct result of Cronulla over-reading the play and halfback Ash Taylor taking advantage.

James Fisher-Harris. Photo: Megan Dunn

Taylor’s game may have been good – in fact it was probably his best game in a couple of seasons – but it was his opposite number seven this weekend who had everyone talking after round 19. Nathan Cleary stepped up to the plate following Matt Moylan’s late withdrawal from the Penrith side, leading the team around brilliantly and bagging a hat trick of tries in his own right.

And while Cleary has been in the spotlight this past week, there’s probably no better person to be able to handle it – the cool, calm and collected nature of the teenager (and the helpful influence of dad Ivan) will ensure that he doesn’t get too big for his boots any time soon.

With Moylan slated to return on Saturday, Cleary won’t be quite as busy but he’s without doubt proven something to his skipper and Moylan’s week off may turn out to be a blessing in disguise with the halves combination perhaps to find more balance now that Cleary’s shown what he is capable of.

The Gold Coast boast plenty of game breakers and their current position on the ladder is perhaps more reflective of their early season injury crisis than it is their ability across the park. From the Hayne Plane to Anthony Don, Konrad Hurrell and William Zillman, the Titans’ ability to create something quickly via their backline is something to be admired.

Nathan Cleary. Photo: Melinda Jane

After getting rid of the cobwebs with a nice performance last week, I’m expecting a big game from James Fisher-Harris, who has so much potential if he can remain injury-free. The loss of Trent Merrin to injury is significant but it’s a chance for Fisher-Harris to stand up.

The Panthers have shown enough in the past fortnight to prove they’re back on track and within reach of silencing their critics.

Tip: Panthers by 14

The Panthers and Titans play at Pepper Stadium on Saturday, July 22 at 3pm.

Troy Dodds

Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor.