Rugby league is so often a numbers game and right now the numbers look pretty grim for Ivan Cleary’s Penrith Panthers.
Where do we start? Perhaps with the damning statistic that shows Penrith has an average possession rate of just 46.6 per cent in matches this season – worse than any other team in the competition, and perhaps indicative of the side’s poor discipline and lack of respect for the football so far this year.
Points? The Panthers are last there too, having scored 63 points in their first five matches, less than teams like the Titans and Bulldogs who many predicted would be in a wooden spoon battle this season.
Penrith are also last in completion rates, second last in line breaks, third last in tackle breaks, second last in offloads, worst in missed tackles and have the highest error rate of any team in the competition.
The Panthers are in freefall, and if things don’t turn around quickly, this very talented ‘on paper’ football side could be staring down the barrel of the club’s fifth wooden spoon in its long and proud history.
“Can’t happen”, those in the know say. This side is surely too good for that. The first five rounds suggest not, however.
We all know that in recent years, Penrith have defied odds and expectations to get themselves out of the gutter and right the wayward ship in time for the Finals. But right now, it’s hard to see the ship doing anything but sinking.
Penrith face a difficult and perhaps season defining three weeks ahead. They face Cronulla at Shark Park, South Sydney at Panthers Stadium and then head to Wagga Wagga to take on Ricky Stuart’s rejuvenated Raiders.
Lose all three of those games and it’s goodnight Penrith. Win one or two of them, and suddenly the tide may start to turn. Things can indeed change quickly in rugby league and winning can do remarkable things.
The Panthers looked a little better in attack last week against the Titans, but their poor defence and attitude let them down again.
Nobody is controlling the flow for Penrith at the moment, and nobody seems willing to stick their hand up to declare they’re the person who is going to lead the team out of the trenches.
Hopefully Ivan Cleary’s decision to appoint James Tamou as captain will ensure there’s better on-field leadership.
Cronulla has plenty of problems of their own at the moment, mainly on the injury front, and they do face a short turnaround after playing the Roosters last Saturday night. Both of these sides are two wins from their first five matches, but you just get the feeling Cronulla are closer to turning it around than Penrith.
The Sharks are still without key playmaker Matt Moylan, but welcome back skipper Paul Gallen who at a pinch probably could have played against the Roosters last week.
Ivan Cleary has made the interesting call to promote Tim Grant back to first grade, starting him in the front row with Reagan Campbell-Gillard relegated to jersey 17 on the bench. Wayde Egan starts at hooker, with Sione Katoa to come on from the bench.
I’m sticking with Penrith again this week – perhaps allowing the heart to overrule the head.
Tip: Panthers by 2.
Penrith and Cronulla play at PointsBet Stadium on Thursday, April 18 from 7.50pm.
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.