Defence the key as Penrith face Grand Final foes

Viliame Kikau has been in great form for Penrith. Photo: NRL Images.
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While all the talk this week was about a ‘Grand Final re-match’ between Penrith and Melbourne, Panthers coach Ivan Cleary is having none of it.

Last year is last year. It’s gone. He said as much at the post-match press conference after last week’s win over Canterbury, as the focus of the rugby league media shifted to the inevitable storylines of redemption and revenge.

If some players want to use last October’s loss at ANZ Stadium as motivation, that’s their call. But it won’t form part of Cleary’s game plan heading into one of the most anticipated match-ups of the season so far.

Penrith head into this clash at Panthers Stadium on the back of two straight wins to start the season, and have yet to concede a point – keeping both the Cowboys and Bulldogs scoreless in back-to-back weeks.

It is proof that the brick wall-like defence the Panthers have built over the last 12 months is standing strong. In fact it has probably been Penrith’s silent weapon of this successful period given how much focus there is on the side’s attack. The reality is Penrith conceded the least points of any side in the competition last season – contributing significantly to their path to the Grand Final.

Paul Momirovski in action for Penrith last weekend. Photo: NRL Images.

The Storm of course found a way to penetrate that brick wall last October, proving that a champion team can always rise above adversity to emerge as winners.

Penrith would have learned a lot from that game and from previous encounters with Melbourne over the years. A number of players this week have spoken about controlling the start of the game, something they didn’t do in the season decider.

Melbourne love playing from in front – get the points on the board and defend like hell. That’s why it’s important the Panthers dominate the first 20 minutes, potentially forcing some errors and taking the ascendancy away from Craig Bellamy’s men.

Both these sides played in wet conditions last weekend, with the Panthers emerging victorious over the Bulldogs and the Storm falling just short to the Eels – both at Bankwest Stadium.

James Fisher-Harris in action earlier this season. Photo: Megan Dunn.

Penrith came out of their game with an 87 per cent completion rate, while the Storm completed at 79 per cent. It’s only a slight difference but you have to take the little things into a game against Melbourne and

Ivan Cleary should feel confident that his side will handle whatever conditions confront them at Panthers Stadium after a week of heavy rain.

He should also be asking Viliame Kikau to repeat his game day preparation from last weekend – the mighty Fijian looked switched on from the moment he ran onto the field, and didn’t let anyone down – scoring two tries in what was one of his better individual performances.

Whatever he had for breakfast, get him double.

The loss of Apisai Koroisau is problematic for Penrith, and it’ll likely be felt more as this six week stint without him rolls on. Mitch Kenny is an admirable replacement, but he doesn’t offer the spark and energy of Koroisau.

The double blow of Nathan Cleary being out means there’s an enormous amount of pressure on Jarome Luai to control the game. It’ll be interesting to see how he steps up.

Will Penrith be celebrating on Thursday night? Photo: Megan Dunn.

Both these sides are high quality machines and it’s hard to split them. But Penrith’s record at home tips me their way.

Tip: Panthers by 2.

Penrith and Melbourne play at Panthers Stadium on Thursday, March 25 at 8.05pm.

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