This weekend marks the NRL’s inaugural Magic Round and Penrith coach Ivan Cleary will certainly need to dig deep into his bag of tricks if his side is to walk away from Suncorp Stadium with a victory.
Penrith fans have every right to feel disgusted with the way the side played against Canberra in Wagga last weekend. It was a performance that exposed Penrith’s terrible ill-discipline and was devoid of enthusiasm and confidence.
Fans and sponsors deserve better than the rabble that has been dished up too often this season, and while the Finals now look unlikely, we can only hope the players find the desire and pride that should come with pulling on the Penrith jersey before this team starts to look down the barrel of a disappointing wooden spoon season.
Cleary has been forced into a raft of changes this weekend, though it could have been much worse.
James Maloney’s success at the judiciary on Tuesday night means he’s free to play, and while he hasn’t been in the best form of late, his competitive nature is crucial to Penrith’s chances; he’s been around long enough to know that he needs to play better and that much of Penrith’s fortunes rest on his shoulders.
The likely loss of Viliame Kikau to an ankle injury is significant, given Penrith send so much of their attack his way. Kikau has been named on the extended bench but was rated only a slim chance of playing, and will most likely be back against the Warriors next weekend.
With Isaah Yeo also out, Cleary has named a new-look forward pack.
Reagan Campbell-Gillard returns to the starting side, while Frank Winterstein is back from injury to partner James Fisher-Harris in the second row. Hame Sele is back at lock, returning to first grade after a sleep-in cost him a stint in the Canterbury Cup.
The return of Dean Whare means Dallin Watene-Zelezniak moves onto to the wing, with Cleary resisting the temptation to shift him back to fullback and offer Dylan Edwards a reprieve.
Whare’s return is significant given his strong defence, and Penrith’s backline looks a little more set and potent than in previous weeks.
Who knows what sort of performance this team will dish up on Friday, especially with so much disruption in the lead-up to the contest, but perhaps those given the opportunity this weekend will play with a little more heart and determination than the first-choice side has produced in recent times.
The Tigers, who fell to Penrith in Golden Point earlier this year and would be desperate to even the ledger, like to throw the ball around and the Panthers will have to work hard to contain their second phase play, especially when you consider Penrith has missed more tackles than any other club this season.
Against the Roosters last weekend, the Tigers proved they are a fair way off the competition’s best teams, but they still played with a huge chunk of spirit.
I’m most looking forward to the halves battle here. You’ve got a couple of veterans in Maloney and Benji Marshall facing off against each other, while the young guns in Nathan Cleary and Luke Brooks also meet.
I’m sticking with the Panthers… just.
Tip: Panthers by 4.
The Panthers and Tigers play on Friday, May 10 at Suncorp Stadium. Kick-off is at 6pm.
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.