There is probably never a good time to play the Sydney Roosters, but if there was, this Sunday afternoon at Panthers Stadium may be it.
After a dominant start to the season in which they stamped their authority on the competition, the defending champions have been a little rattled in recent times.
They’ve lost their last two matches – against Brisbane and Newcastle – and are now dealing with the difficult State of Origin period, which sees coach Trent Robinson carefully managing the workload of some of his biggest stars.
To make matters worse, Luke Keary is on the sidelines as he continues to recover from that harsh concussion he copped against the Knights a couple of weeks ago, while Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was suspended for two weeks on Tuesday night for that hit on Kalyn Ponga a fortnight ago.
This period will be a test for the Roosters and while Robinson has named a strong side to play the Panthers on Sunday, he’ll have to monitor some of his Origin representatives to see how they back up from Wednesday night’s brutal encounter.
Penrith meanwhile are almost unaffected by the Origin period, with only Nathan Cleary away from the side. Cleary has been named on the reserve list for Sunday’s game but given the time between Wednesday night’s Origin and this weekend’s game, he is expected to play alongside James Maloney.
With both halves available for the first time in three weeks, a question rises to the surface – what do you do with Jarome Luai?
The 22-year-old has been waiting for his opportunity to nail down a permanent spot in the Penrith side ever since that memorable performance against the Warriors last year. Whenever he’s been given a chance, he hasn’t let the Panthers down, and it’s only a matter of time before he will enjoy a permanent spot in the halves.
For now, coach Ivan Cleary will be forced to relegate him back to the bench for Sunday’s game against the Roosters, but most would agree he’s almost wasted there, often not used until the game has left Penrith’s grasp.
The Panthers come into Sunday afternoon’s clash on the back of two confidence-boosting wins, with last Thursday’s victory over Manly particularly impressive given Nathan Cleary was on Origin duty and powerhouse forward Viliame Kikau was missing through illness.
It goes without saying that the Panthers will have to be better than they have been all season if they’re a chance of toppling the Roosters. The victories over Parramatta and Manly were good, but the Roosters operate on a completely different level.
If both James Tedesco and Latrell Mitchell back up for the Roosters, they’ll be the players Penrith have to try to control. Mitchell has scored more points than anyone in the competition this year, while Tedesco leads the competition in line breaks and tackle breaks.
This is Penrith’s biggest test of the season and will answer another question all fans are pondering at the moment – is this a side that could create history and still make the Finals, or were the last two weeks simply highlights of an otherwise disappointing season? I think the Panthers may just cause a boilover here.
Tip: Panthers by 2.
The Panthers and Roosters play at Panthers Stadium on Sunday, June 9 at 4.05pm.
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.