After getting through their first ‘smash and grab’ road trip of the season to Queensland last weekend, the Panthers now base themselves back in New South Wales for the next five weeks as they try to defend their lead at the top of the competition.
The next fortnight provides Penrith’s biggest test since a string of tough games against the Eels, Storm and Rabbitohs back in June. This weekend they face a rejuvenated Manly while the following week it’s Ricky Stuart’s gritty Raiders.
One game at a time, they say.
Penrith survived a match that had ‘danger game’ written all over it against the Titans last weekend. It was far from a memorable win but one that would have pleased coach Ivan Cleary given the long list of first graders he had sitting on the sideline.
The Panthers appear to have hopefully hit the peak of the injury surge and will now start getting players back each week, starting with Viliame Kikau this weekend who missed the Gold Coast trip due to a calf problem.
In his absence we saw both Liam Martin and Isaah Yeo stand up – two of the most under-rated players in the competition who rip and tear for Penrith every weekend.
A run of injuries is never desired but almost certainly guaranteed at some point of the season. In this reduced competition, with no representative breaks and potentially 22 straight weeks of football should you make it to the big dance, having the opportunity to rest players, or allow them to recover from niggly injuries they may have otherwise persisted with in other seasons, is all part of the extra team management required by coaches at the moment.
This Saturday night’s game will be a huge test for Penrith.
Kikau may be back but a host of important and experienced first graders like Dylan Edwards and Dean Whare remain on the sideline.
Manly seems to have rediscovered their groove after a horror loss to the Dragons three weeks ago, posting impressive wins over Parramatta and the Cowboys in recent weeks.
They’re defending extremely well, but it’s the form reversal of halfback Daly Cherry-Evans that has everyone talking and sets up one hell of a battle with Nathan Cleary on Saturday.
Cleary has been one of the form halfbacks of the competition this year, his game management going up a level.
Cherry-Evans has him for experience, but Cleary has never worried about the number of games played. His cool, calm demeanour is his greatest asset – rarely is he overawed by an occasion.
The five-eighth battle will also be great – Jarome Luai was superb last weekend while Cade Cust has been in great form for the Sea Eagles.
One thing that will need to improve on Saturday is Penrith’s short kicking game. Both Cleary and Luai can be a little trigger happy at times, looking for a miracle try on the third or fourth play when it’s not really on and building pressure by getting to the last tackle would be a better option. It resulted in Jamal Fogarty’s try for the Titans last weekend and needs to be looked at.
If the Sea Eagles win it will come off the back of their impressive forward pack, with the likes of Curtis Sironen and Jake Trbojevic particularly dangerous.
Manly are playing some impressive football at the moment, but Penrith just keep winning. The run will stop at some point, but there is so much to be said for youth, confidence and enthusiasm.
This should be the match of the round – I’m predicting an absolute thriller with a late Cleary field goal potentially the deciding play.
Tip: Penrith by 1.
The Panthers and Sea Eagles play on Saturday, August 1 at 7.35pm at Lottoland.
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.