Repeat after me: danger game.
It might not appear so on paper, but this Round 4 clash between Penrith and Manly at Brookvale Oval may not be the walk in the park that you’d expect.
Sure, these sides find themselves at opposite ends of the competition table, but here’s the thing about the NRL – winning is inevitable, and so is losing.
Manly will win eventually, though their form over the first three weeks of the competition suggests it may not come against last year’s Grand Finalists.
And while Penrith showed last year that winning can become habit, they’ll lose at some stage – such is the nature of the competition.
It’s a stretch to suggest both sides would produce such a dramatic form reversal ahead of this Thursday night clash, but it can’t be ruled out. And it’s why coach Ivan Cleary must have his side well prepared as they try to continue their faultless start to the season.
Much of the effort this past week would have been on recovering and then moving on from that epic performance against Melbourne a week ago. It was emotionally and physically exhausting just watching it from the stands, so imagine what it was like for the players.
After two comfortable wins to start the season, the tough outing against Melbourne was exactly what Penrith needed. To be put in what’s become a rare position of having to come from behind and fight tooth and nail for the two competition points will only steel Cleary’s men for the long road ahead.
Penrith come into this game without fullback Dylan Edwards, who I thought was Penrith’s best player last week before he succumbed to a broken hand. Cleary has opted to go with Stephen Crichton at fullback, shifting Matt Burton to the centres.
There won’t be any worry about Crichton under the high ball but whether he offers the same level of support play as Edwards is a question mark.
On the plus side, Nathan Cleary returns from his forced rest last weekend, and you can be certain he’ll slip straight back into the game management role that has become the envy of the NRL.
Burton did a terrific job last weekend, and was clearly under strict instructions to kick early and often – a solid way to ensure he got the feel of the game and the occasion didn’t get to him. But Cleary is the key to this side’s success, and it’ll look far more settled with him in control.
Penrith must be on alert for a sudden return to form of Cleary’s rival, Daly Cherry-Evans, who has without doubt struggled over the first few weeks of the competition to capture the form that made him one of the highest paid players in the game.
That Cherry-Evans / Kieran Foran combination that was once so formidable has been starkly disappointing to start the season, but you’d think it will click eventually.
The battle in the middle here is a particularly enticing contest, particularly the match-up of Isaah Yeo and Jake Trbojevic.
If Penrith complete well and limit Manly’s opportunities, they should be able to escape with this one.
But I’m not convinced it’ll be a thrashing – the Sea Eagles are a proud club, and they certainly made Souths work hard for their win at Brookvale a fortnight ago.
Talent and form should, however, win out in the end.
Tip: Panthers by 12.
Penrith and Manly play at Brookvale Oval on Thursday, April 1 at 8.05pm.
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.