Penrith may have entered last Thursday’s clash with Brisbane as one of the shortest priced favourites in NRL history, but there was always a little feeling that perhaps things wouldn’t go to script.
The side’s ultimately big win over Canberra disguised some sloppy moments at crucial times that perhaps suggested a performance like the one against Brisbane was coming.
In the end, champion teams manage to get the two points and that’s what Penrith did at Suncorp last Thursday night – even though they probably weren’t the better team. Brisbane were brave and played well.
When it came down to the crucial minutes, however, Nathan Cleary stood up and got the job done – exactly what you want your skipper and game manager to do.
Ivan Cleary’s side returns home this week to take on a Newcastle team that remains battered and bruised and without their chief playmaker, yet is still showing signs of life on the canvas.
Kalyn Ponga almost single-handedly got them home against Cronulla last Friday night, proving the Knights will be no easybeats despite a long injury list that includes halfback Mitchell Pearce.
The Panthers would have got a lot more out of the tight win over Brisbane than they would have got out of a thumping that had been predicted. Like at times in 2020, coach Cleary has the opportunity to fix some issues while still winning – a luxury few teams enjoy, given such maintenance is usually performed on a losing footy side.
Brisbane did show Newcastle where Penrith have some weaknesses, or at least potential flaws. The Panthers weren’t quite prepared for the bashing they got up the middle and a better side would have taken more advantage of that last Thursday night. It’ll be no surprise if the Knights implement a similar tactic – go hard and go strong and hope to ice your opportunities.
For Penrith this game comes down to that man Nathan Cleary. This is the type of match against an opponent a couple of tiers down in status that a game manager needs to take by the scruff of the neck and dominate from start to finish.
Sure, we can have those beautiful on the eyes moments from the likes of Jarome Luai and Brian To’o, but the game is won between the ears at the end of the day and that’s where Cleary is far and above better than any other playmaker in the competition at present.
He’ll be boosted by the possible return of Api Koroisau at hooker. While Mitch Kenny has done an impressive job filling in since Koroisau went down in the opening game of the season, Api’s speed and zip out of dummy half will help Penrith regain that forward ascendancy they lacked last week.
I remain unsold on Stephen Crichton at fullback, but Cleary would likely be unwilling to tinker with a winning formula especially with Dylan Edwards’ return imminent.
Cleary will have to tweak the side named on Tuesday, however, given Paul Momirovski’s suspension.
Despite Newcastle’s solid win last week and the impressive form of Ponga, who actually came into the game under an illness cloud, I can’t see the Panthers dropping this one – especially as they close in on two years without being beaten at home.
The Panthers should be able to get on top early and close it out.
Tip: Panthers by 13.
Penrith and Newcastle play at BlueBet Stadium on Thursday, April 22 at 7.50pm.
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.