Rugby league enters a surreal situation this weekend with games to be played in front of no fans, as the Coronavirus response ramps up across the world.
The Panthers travel to Kogarah for the early Friday night game against a St George-Illawarra side on a very short back-up after playing in Wollongong against Wests Tigers on Sunday night.
Dragons fans would be worried after what they saw against the Tigers – a 24-14 defeat and a side that, despite scoring in the opening minute of the game and leading for much of the contest, never really looked in control
Penrith meantime surprised plenty across the rugby league landscape with an impressive come-from-behind win over defending premiers the Roosters at Panthers Stadium.
While Penrith looked out of sorts in the first half, they really clicked into gear as the match progressed and absolutely dominated the Roosters in the second stanza, shutting them out of the contest and announcing themselves as a realistic top eight threat this year – if a top eight is ever determined, of course.
The usual suspects were in fine form – Nathan Cleary led the side well, Viliame Kikau crashed over when it mattered and Isaah Yeo was a menace, clocking up a team high 170 metres.
Api Koroisau’s return to Penrith was also a success – 59 tackles and a performance that had many fans relieved, with the side’s problem at hooker appearing to be resolved.
Penrith coach Ivan Cleary has been forced to replace forward Jack Hetherington with Billy Burns on the bench, after Hetherington was suspended – again – for a high tackle on Roosters fullback James Tedesco.
The Dragons also didn’t miss the ire of the match review committee, losing Tariq Sims for Friday night’s game after he was hit with a dangerous contact charge.
While they’ll be watching from the lounge room instead of the famous Kogarah hill, Dragons fans will be desperate to see their side collect their first win of the season and I’ve got no doubt there could be a big bounce back factor for Paul McGregor’s men after the disappointment of Sunday night against the Tigers.
For that reason I expect the Dragons to come out firing early, much like they did last weekend.
That should be no problem for a Penrith side that displayed impressive patience against the Roosters last week, and showed much more in attack than they did last season.
Again the likes of Cleary, Kikau and Yeo will be key, but after getting the cobwebs out it’d be nice to see strong performances from James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota and Zane Tetevano this weekend. All three have the potential to offer so much to Penrith’s go-forward.
The Dragons are boosted by the return of Matt Dufty at fullback.
It’ll take both sides some time to get used the distinct lack of atmosphere at games, but eventually it’ll settle – and as Ivan Cleary said last week, they train that way every other day of the week anyway.
While I think the Dragons will improve on their first round efforts, I’m sensing back-to-back victories loom for the Panthers.
Tip: Panthers by 8.
The Panthers and Dragons play at Netstrata Jubilee Oval on Friday, March 20 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.