Penrith may sit second on the ladder heading into this game against the Wests Tigers at Panthers Stadium but I’m still hearing people claim the side has had a “soft” draw to start the season. Never mind the $3 million injury crisis that probably would have had every other club in the NRL sitting in the bottom half of the competition.
The truth is the Panthers have done remarkably well to be where they are 10 weeks into the competition but the next fortnight provides an almighty test. First its the seventh placed Wests Tigers who have surprised plenty of league fans this year, and last week woke up from a mini form slump to get past the Cowboys at Leichhardt Oval. Then it’s a top of the table blockbuster against the Dragons, which will perhaps be Penrith’s biggest test of 2018 so far.
It’s fair to say Penrith fans will know where their side is really at over the next fortnight.
The Panthers were solid without being overly impressive against the Knights last Friday night, but the side got the job done and it was nice to lead from the outset rather than be forced to come from behind as has been so often the case in 2018.
Penrith kept their error rate low and dominated possession for big chunks of the game, helping to frustrate Newcastle who very nearly could have won the game if a few things went their way.
The big story heading into this round 11 match is the return of halfback Nathan Cleary. His comeback has a significant flow-on effect as it allows Tyrone Peachey to go back to his preferred position of centre and Isaah Yeo to move back into the second row where he most valuable.
James Maloney has done an incredible job guiding the side around the park since Cleary went down in round 3 and it’ll be interesting to see how the dynamic shifts now that the exciting young halfback is back on the field. While Maloney will most likely allow Cleary to take the reigns again, it’s important that the pair develop an understanding and a structure that works for them both individually as well as the team itself.
Cleary is back at the right time because the Panthers will have a job on their hands containing the impressive partnership of Benji Marshall and Luke Brooks. Marshall is offering a steady and experienced hand this season while Brooks appears to be playing with much more confidence than ever before under coach Ivan Cleary.
The Tigers did suffer a setback during the week when Mahe Fonua was late to training, and was subsequently axed from this game by Cleary.
The Panthers meanwhile will be without captain Peter Wallace who is being troubled by an ongoing shoulder injury.
With Nathan Cleary back on deck and the Panthers suddenly eyeing off a share of the competition lead, I think the home side should be able to continue their unbeaten run at Panthers Stadium this year – but it’ll be tight.
Tip: Panthers by 4.
The Panthers and Tigers play on Thursday, May 17 at 7.50pm at Panthers Stadium.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor.