Players must repay the faithful

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The long, hot summer is finally over. Netflix can go into hibernation, the beer fridge can be re-filled and the cricket can become an afterthought.

The NRL season is back, and on Sunday the long road towards September (and hopefully October) begins for the Penrith Panthers when they take on arch rivals Parramatta at Panthers Stadium.

When the clock starts to count down at 4.05pm on Sunday, Penrith will be able to let their football do the talking after a highly publicised, unfortunate end to the off-season.

The Panthers have spent a lot of time in recent years building a strong culture, and General Manager Phil Gould, CEO Brian Fletcher and Chairman Dave O’Neill thought the playing group had bought in to what they were selling.

The recent revelations that have been dissected extensively throughout the media have disappointed club officials, sponsors, partners and of course fans.

There is a feeling that the playing group now owes something to everyone who has an investment in Penrith.

This squad, despite the cloud that still hovers over it somewhat ahead of Sunday’s game, must repay the faithful.

Without question the events of the past few weeks offers the players an opportunity to show how strong their character is. They must overcome the drama and push the wide-open premiership window even higher.

The importance of experienced players like James Maloney, James Tamou, Tim Grant and Josh Mansour cannot be understated this season, especially given what’s happened in recent weeks.

Tyrone May at training earlier this week. Photo: Melinda Jane

Many of the younger players are experiencing the perils of the rugby league media cycle for the first time, and the guidance of those who have seen it all before will be critical.

It would be foolish to suggest, and I most certainly am not, that what’s happened off the field can be easily brushed away by good performances on it. There is still very serious consequences to play out, and many questions to be answered. But with the season now underway, it will be important for coach Ivan Cleary to try to separate the issues the club is dealing with from the training and game day environments.

Rugby league is so often a game of redemption, and while there’s no suggestion that any of the players taking the field on Sunday are searching for it, there would surely be an atmosphere of regret, concern and embarrassment around the footy club at the moment. Sunday is a chance for some course correction.

There is a lot to be excited about at the Panthers this season.

Whether it’s the return of Dylan Edwards, the continuing story of superstar Nathan Cleary, the breakout season waiting to happen for Viliame Kikau or the excitement of seeing Josh Mansour and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak back to their best, the storylines are endless.

Nathan Cleary. Photo: Megan Dunn

And of course, there’s a bloke called Ivan with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Not that his poker face will show it.

After his controversial and much talked about switch from the Wests Tigers back to Penrith, Cleary must now deliver.

His man management will be key this season, especially with the added distractions of recent weeks.

To be honest I’ve been unsure how to answer the inevitable question of “how will Penrith go this year?”.

I’m concerned that the side will miss the experience of Trent Merrin, and the impact of Tyrone Peachey.

I’m worried about injuries, which have proved a curse for the club in recent seasons.

And there’s still a big question mark over the appointment of Ivan Cleary, which I truly hope is a gamble that pays off come season’s end.

Panthers coach Ivan Cleary. Photo: Melinda Jane

We’ll know a little more come 6pm Sunday, when the battle of the west is run and won.

Premierships are not won in March or April, however, and hopefully Penrith fans have learned in recent years that patience is a virtue.

We’ll all head to Panthers Stadium a little bruised on Sunday. Let’s hope we walk out with plenty of pride.

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