Panthers back in Bathurst to face in-form Sea Eagles

Nathan Cleary. Photo: NRL Photos.
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Back in Round 4 I suggested Penrith’s clash against Manly at Brookvale Oval was a danger game, despite the Sea Eagles’ poor start to the season. The Panthers left me with egg on my face as they cruised to a 46-6 win, their biggest ever victory at Brookie.

Fast forward a month and I’ll dare to repeat my words: danger game.
This time, I’ve got a little more evidence to back me up, namely two words: Tom Trbojevic.

‘Turbo’ was missing from that Round 4 demolition but his return to Manly’s side in the past two weeks has proven what a difference a single player can make, with Des Hasler’s team getting off the canvas and producing thumping wins over the Gold Coast and Wests Tigers.

Tom Trbojevic has made an impact since returning for Manly. Photo: NRL Photos.

Sure, it’s not the greatest form line in the world, but given how Manly had gone over the first month, beating anybody by even a few points is a vast improvement, let alone 40-odd.

Their real test of course comes on Saturday in Bathurst, home to the Panthers for a day but an unhappy hunting ground in recent times – Penrith haven’t won there since a miracle last gasp victory over Canberra in 2017.

The Panthers welcome back Api Koroisau for this clash, a huge inclusion that will see Penrith field its first-choice spine for the first time since Round 1, an incredible fact when you consider Ivan Cleary’s side remains unbeaten this season.

Dylan Edwards’ return last week felt like a warm blanket on a cold winter’s morning – ultra comfortable. Stephen Crichton did his best to fill in for Edwards over the past month, but never looked settled in the number one jumper. Edwards returned straight back to the form he displayed in the opening few rounds of the competition and will only get better as his confidence continues to return.

Brian To’o flies through the air against Newcastle. Photo: NRL Photos.

Perhaps the real highlight of this clash, outside of Trbojevic and Edwards facing off, is the battle of the halfbacks – Nathan Cleary and a rejuvenated Daly Cherry-Evans.

Cherry-Evans had been a shadow of his former self in the first few weeks of the competition but ever since kicking a breakthrough field goal against the Warriors it’s like a switch has gone off, and his confidence has grown enormously. Combined with Trbojevic’s return, Manly all of a sudden look like a footy team that could slip into Finals contention.

Getting on top of his opposite number this weekend however will be no easy task.

Cleary has been in red hot form, his game management reaching a new level this season and again on display against Newcastle last week. The 24-6 win over the Knights may not have been flashy, but Cleary always appeared to have Penrith in control of the contest.

And that has been Penrith’s key to success this year, and for much of 2020: control. It was only in the Grand Final (sorry for mentioning it) that the Panthers appeared out of control and out-played, and they didn’t quite have the experience to wrestle the momentum back against an opposition like Melbourne. They figured it out eventually, but it was too late.

Jarome Luai brings Kalyn Ponga to the ground. Photo: NRL Photos.

It’s why Penrith is likely to keep unbeaten for a while yet, too. Like the great teams of the last decade – namely Melbourne and the Roosters – Penrith have figured out how to make winning part of their culture and expectations.

This is a danger game for sure, but the Panthers should have Manly’s measure in the end.

Tip: Panthers by 10.

Penrith and Manly play at Carrington Park in Bathurst on Saturday, May 1 at 3pm.


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