Top of the table Panthers lose key stars ahead of Titans clash

Viliame Kikau returns this weekend. Photo: Megan Dunn.
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After 10 rounds of the 2019 season, the Penrith Panthers sat in last spot on the NRL ladder with only two wins to their name. A season on, Ivan Cleary’s side has climbed the summit and now sits atop the competition at its half-way point – a remarkable transformation.

Last Sunday’s win over the Cowboys at Panthers Stadium was far from perfect – in fact it was probably the worst performance in this stretch of five straight wins – but it was enough to catapult Penrith to a deserved first place on the ladder.

The Panthers face a new challenge this weekend when they travel outside of Sydney for the first time this season, boarding a plane for the Gold Coast on Sunday morning to take on the Titans at Cbus Super Stadium.

And they’ll do it without a host of stars after Dylan Edwards, Api Koroisau and Dean Whare were all ruled out of the game with minor injuries.

Brent Naden in action against the Cowboys. Photo: NRL Images.

While the 42-6 scoreline would suggest otherwise, the Titans weren’t totally disgraced against premiership powerhouse Melbourne last Friday night and can’t be brushed aside as easybeats, especially with those key outs for Penrith.

Mid-way through the first half the Titans were going set for set with Melbourne, the scores locked at 6-all and a much tighter contest than anticipated was emerging. In the end, the experience and ability of the Storm took over and the Titans simply couldn’t keep up, ultimately surrendering to lose by a big scoreline.

Difficult as it would seem, Justin Holbrook would have found plenty of positives out of that game and should feel confident of in the very least a competitive showing on Sunday.

The key to Penrith winning this one is patience. The Storm produced a perfect example of this last week – they didn’t panic when the scoreboard wasn’t ticking over as quickly as expected, they stayed the course and eventually got the job done.

Josh Mansour. Photo: Megan Dunn.

A lack of patience actually threatened the Panthers against North Queensland on Sunday. There were times when they became frustrated when things didn’t quite go their way, and signs of the ‘old Panthers’ started to show. Fortunately they found the toughness required to get home and win, but it’s something Cleary will have surely worked on this week.

The Titans will eventually make the errors and miss the tackles that give their opposition a chance – that’s just where they sit in the NRL landscape at the moment – but they can also pile on the points if given the chance, and Penrith can’t take the match lightly.

I’m again expecting Penrith’s forwards to lead the way. James Fisher-Harris was immense last week, running for some 250 metres and making almost 60 tackles. If he produces another performance like that the Titans’ forward pack may just offer to surrender at some point during the 80 minutes.

I’m also really liking what we’re seeing out of Tyrone May at the moment. After more than a year out of the game he has every reason to be in his shell, but he’s been very involved when he’s out on the field and his passing game is catching the eye. He’s a superb option off the bench and coach Cleary will surely continue with that model for as long as he can.

Tyrone May looks for an opportunity. Photo: Megan Dunn.

In the end I expect the Panthers to beat the Titans on Sunday – Cleary’s men simply have too much skill across the park to drop this one.

Tip: Panthers by 14.

The Panthers and Titans play at Cbus Super Stadium on Sunday, July 26 at 4pm.

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