Penrith still undefeated in the last week of May? It would have been the stuff dreams were made of if somebody told you that in the pre-season, and while it may be factually true, we know the dream actually turned into a nightmare.
More than two months since a thrilling win over the Dragons at Kogarah, the Panthers finally return to the field this Sunday at their temporary home of Campbelltown Stadium to take on a Knights side also coming off back-to-back wins.
It’s been a wild ride, this mini off-season of ours, full of speculation, doubt, innuendo and TikTok videos. But it’s now all largely in the past as rugby league becomes one of the first professional sports in the world to get back on the field – an incredible feat.
Now that all the talk is over (and hasn’t there been some talk), on-field action will take over. And with reduced staff numbers, no crowds and odd home venue scheduling, things won’t quite look normal this Sunday. But a win? A win will feel as good as it always does.
The Panthers will of course have to do it without Nathan Cleary, star of that aforementioned TikTok video, who will sit out the first two games of the resumed season. He’ll have high profile company, with Kalyn Ponga also missing for the Knights – big names on the sidelines, and big gaps to fill.
While Tex Hoy will fill Ponga’s fullback jersey, at the Panthers Ivan Cleary has, as expected, gone with youngsters Matt Burton and Jarome Luai in the halves this weekend.
While experience and game management is an obvious issue, there may just be enough enthusiasm in the tank to get Burton and Luai through the next two games without any real damage being done.
The Panthers were impressive in their opening round matches against the Roosters and the Dragons, fighting their way back from deficits in both matches and doing it with a kind of arrogance and attitude that has often been missing in Penrith. Perhaps it is an indication the Mr Nice Guy sign has been put away.
In both games we saw the brilliance of Apisai Koroisau on show and just what a difference he’s going to make to Penrith from dummy half all season. He is one of the missing pieces of the puzzle and if he stays fit, will be a determining factor in Penrith’s quest to return to Finals football this season.
Coach Ivan Cleary has a new challenge now that the competition is back – sustaining his players for a long run between now and October, with no Origin period to navigate and no bye weekends. The NRL season will turn into a survival of the fittest, and Cleary will be desperate to keep the likes of Viliame Kikau on the field as much as possible this year; to give Penrith the best shot at a Finals run.
Newcastle were impressive in their opening two games, shutting out the Warriors completely and putting more than 40 points on the Tigers at Leichhardt Oval – no easy task.
But it’s safe to say form from the first two games means less than it usually would. One of these teams, after all, isn’t going to have the undefeated tag come 6pm Sunday evening.
Both sides have their strengths and flaws this weekend. Penrith clearly have the better backline, but Newcastle’s forward pack looks formidable. It should make for an entertaining game, and one with potentially plenty of points.
I’m expecting a see-sawing affair that will go down to the wire, but Penrith’s backline should get them home.
Tip: Panthers by 4.
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.