The Penrith Panthers head to Leichhardt Oval on Friday night and face perhaps their biggest challenge of the season so far, lining up without a host of big-name players thanks to Origin duty and suspension.
Brian To’o, Jarome Luai, Nathan Cleary, Isaah Yeo, Liam Martin, Api Koroisau, Kurt Capewell and Moses Leota are all missing from a Penrith side that has trampled all-comers so far this season.
The result is a very different looking 17 from the one we’re all used to, but Ivan Cleary certainly won’t be complaining – his side will only benefit from the Origin experience in the long-run, while those earning a start in first grade this weekend get an opportunity to prove themselves and have the responsibility of keeping this long-running winning streak alive.
It will be the experienced players left in Penrith’s team that will need to lift to another level this weekend – namely the likes of a returning Dylan Edwards along with new skipper James Fisher-Harris, Viliame Kikau and Stephen Crichton.
Penrith’s new-look halves pairing of Matt Burton and Tyrone May has had plenty of first grade experience this year, while Mitch Kenny has filled in admirably when Koroisau has been missing.
In short this Penrith team still offers plenty against a Tigers side that is largely unaffected by Origin, save for Joe Ofahengaue who has been named for the Maroons.
The Tigers come into this game having won two of their last three matches, finally starting to find some of the rhythm that coach Michael Maguire has been looking for. Their performance against the Dragons last weekend was classic Maguire footy – tough, gritty and resilient.
Maybe the players are finally getting the message. The Tigers would feel this is their best shot at beating the Panthers given the player drain the representative period offers, but Penrith still have plenty on show – and it’s perhaps no surprise they’ve maintained favouritism with the bookies.
When you can still put out a forward pack with the likes of Fisher-Harris, Kikau and Spencer Leniu, you’re doing just fine.
The Panthers will miss the game management of Cleary, the metres of To’o and the hard yakka of Yeo, but there’s something to be said for the ‘one in, all in’ system at Penrith and those filling the gaps this weekend will be far from disgraced.
All of that said, those bottom-placed Bulldogs certainly gave the star-studded Panthers a run for their money last weekend. While it never felt like Penrith would lose, Trent Barrett’s side turned up with an old-fashioned mentality – run hard and hit hard, and it paid dividends until a moment of madness from Dallin Watene-Zelezniak on the stroke of half-time gave Penrith the ascendancy they’d been searching for.
Maguire’s sides generally play with a similar style, so you can expect the Tigers to really muscle up on Friday night. Expect some big hits and huge runs from the forwards, while Luke Brooks’ kicking game will be key to keeping Penrith contained to their half of the field.
What the Bulldogs tried to do last Saturday the Tigers may just have the firepower to pull off on Friday night.
Still, this Panthers outfit is proving impossible to stop at the moment, and while this will be a harder fought victory than most, I think Ivan Cleary’s men can rise above adversity and get the two points.
Tip: Panthers by 6.
Penrith and Wests Tigers play on Friday, June 4 at 7.55pm at Leichhardt Oval. The game is live on Channel Nine and Fox League.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Senior Writer. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.