Panthers face Storm warning in Friday night blockbuster

James Tamou. Photo: NRL Images.
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In his post-match press conference last Friday night following the 16-10 loss to Parramatta, coach Ivan Cleary was asked to reflect on a game two weeks earlier – against Newcastle – where a drift in concentration after leading 14-0 had cost his side a competition point.

Such a lapse had just happened again, and Cleary conceded it was an issue: “We’re still learning that,” he said, referring to ensuring the concentration levels remain high even when the scoreboard is significantly in your favour.

But there is positives for Cleary to take out of both the Newcastle and Eels collapses. While three competition points in total have been painfully taken from their grasp, Penrith has been in a position to win every game so far this season, which gives the coach a platform to build from. The fact they’ve grabbed seven vital competition points along the way is a bonus, as the Panthers get to play each game from within the eight – a critical advantage in this reduced season.

Had Penrith not conceded a try against the Knights before half-time in round three and had they avoided the eight minutes of chaos in the second half last weekend, they’d be sitting pretty at the top of the competition ladder. Rugby league is full of ‘what ifs’ but this scenario appears legitimate enough to give Penrith fans confidence heading into Friday night’s clash with Melbourne at Campbelltown Stadium.

James Fisher-Harris in action. Photo: NRL Images.

The Storm go into the game as favourites on the back of two strong performances against the Rabbitohs and Knights. But while Craig Bellamy would be comfortable with his side’s spot on the ladder, he may well be concerned by the somewhat incomplete performances his side is offering.

Melbourne haven’t delivered a complete 80 minute performance this season, often leaving it late to wrap up games they’d otherwise have in the bag by half-time. And when a side comes along that really takes it to them – like Canberra a few weeks ago – they struggle to find their way back into the match.

That opens the door for Penrith, but that drift in concentration needs to disappear from their game otherwise it’ll be punished by a Melbourne side that, much like the Eels, will not gift you back the lead once it’s been surrendered.

The Panthers welcome back Dylan Edwards this week, providing a welcome boost at fullback. After numerous injury setbacks and with some handy talent eyeing off his position, he’ll feel he has plenty to prove.

Dylan Edwards in action. Photo: Megan Dunn.

Cleary has again named Matt Burton on the bench, maintaining the Jarome Luai / Nathan Cleary halves combination. He clearly wants to make three go into two, but for me it didn’t go anywhere near having the desired result last weekend – and is a questionable game plan when you consider how the spot on the bench could be better utilised.

I’d prefer to see the Panthers improve their rotation with four forwards on the bench, particularly given some of the versatility at Cleary’s disposal should a back go down injured. Is it time for Jack Hetherington to offer some real mongrel?

(Let’s hope Burton comes on and scores the match-winner on Friday and I’m left with egg on my face).

If Melbourne get early momentum I fear for Penrith in this one, but the longer Cleary’s men can stay in the game, the more confident I’ll feel about getting the chocolates.

Tip: Panthers by 2.

The Panthers and Storm play on Friday, June 19 at 7.55pm at Campbelltown Stadium.

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