Season defining game as Panthers hunt Rabbits

Nathan Cleary flies high for the Panthers against Cronulla. Photo: NRL Photos
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It’s been quite a week in the world of the Penrith Panthers, but despite all the goings-on behind the scenes, there’s a pretty important game of football to be played on Friday night.

In fact, this clash against Wayne Bennett’s South Sydney Rabbitohs could well be season defining for Ivan Cleary’s side. Lose this and the Finals start to look like an unachievable goal.

Last week’s loss to Cronulla was bitterly disappointing given the Panthers twice held a 14-point lead, but overall there was some positive signs that things are starting to shift for the men in black.

Dean Whare’s hamstring injury really hurt Penrith on the night, forcing Ivan Cleary’s interchange plans to be altered and exposing a worrying lack of fitness in his troops.

That fitness issue has been hovering for a few weeks now and it’s something that has its roots in the pre-season, and unfortunately is not quickly fixed.

With Whare out this weekend, Cleary has opted to move Dallin Watene-Zelezniak into the centres – his third position in seven matches this season – while Caleb Aekins earns another shot in first grade at fullback, with Cleary resisting the temptation to bring Dylan Edwards back into the top team.

Tim Grant scores for Penrith last week. Photo: NRL Photos

Aekins is a solid performer but Penrith’s backline is now looking somewhat patched up and unlike what we expected at the start of the season; we can only hope it all starts to click given time is quickly running out for the team to find some much-needed consistency.

The Panthers looked much better with Wayde Egan starting at hooker last week and Cleary has again opted to go with that structure, with Sione Katoa to come off the bench.

Penrith’s service out of dummy half has been a concern all season and most feared it would be the case given the club had no real obvious replacement for Peter Wallace, who was forced to retire mid-way through last season. Egan looked promising last week however and should improve with more game time.

Souths on the other hand certainly have no problem with the #9 jumper, and Penrith will have to be on high alert for Damien Cook who has had more line engagements than any other player this season.

Souths were far from impressive against the Bulldogs last Friday and in fact I dare say are not going as well as their top four position would suggest.

Isaah Yeo in action against Cronulla. Photo: NRL Photos

They really struggled to put the Dogs away, should have lost to the Warriors on the Sunshine Coast, lost to Manly in Golden Point and almost got beaten by the Titans. They were outstanding against the Roosters and Dragons in the opening rounds but it wouldn’t surprise me to see things start to fall apart as the season drags on.

The forward battle on Friday night will be crucial. We know the Burgess brothers are going to run hard and have plenty to offer, and how Penrith respond to that could be the game’s determining factor.

Viliame Kikau and James Fisher-Harris have been superb in recent weeks but need to go up another gear on Friday.

After a turbulent week off the field, Ivan Cleary has now been given the clean air he desires. Let’s hope it somehow filters down to the players.

Tip: Panthers by 8.

Penrith and Souths play at Panthers Stadium on Friday, April 26 at 7.55pm.

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