Panthers look to bounce back from first loss of the season

James Fisher-Harris. Photo: NRL Photos.
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It’s unfamiliar territory for Ivan Cleary and the Penrith Panthers this weekend as they try to bounce back from a regular season loss for the first time since going down to Parramatta in Round 5 of the pandemic-impacted 2020 season.

Of course Cleary would have wanted his patched-up Panthers to beat the Tigers last Friday night, but in the big scheme of things a loss was always inevitable and even likely during this Origin period, so no panic buttons would have been pressed this week.

Most championship teams, no matter how good they may be, lose games along the way. In fact no side has gone through a season unbeaten since St George in 1959, so let’s not lose our heads.

You always learn more from losing than winning, and there’s no doubt Cleary would have learned plenty about his side’s depth – and where it needs to be tweaked – from the performance at Leichhardt. With such a blessed injury run, Penrith hasn’t had to shake things up too much in the past 18 months, so things were always going to be a little rusty when the representative period arrived.

Nathan Cleary has been named on an extended bench. Photo: NRL Photos.

The focus now turns to Cronulla on Friday night and the big question will be how many players back-up from Wednesday night’s match in Townsville.

Cleary has named all seven of his Origin representatives in the extended squad, but with the intensity of Origin combined with travel to and from Townsville, it’s hard to see them all playing just 48 hours later.

Penrith must continue to play the long game during this period, and the points they banked in the first half of the season will be super valuable in determining how the side manages the next few games. A Minor Premiership would be wonderful but we’ve been there, done that. It’s all about the big prize, hence managing workloads will be crucial.

I have no doubt no matter what 17 players turn out on Friday night, Penrith will put in a much-improved effort compared to last week. Combinations will click better, confidence will grow and the points will ultimately flow, especially with a few key players back. The almost-definite inclusion of Api Koroisau will be vital in ensuring each play gets off on the right foot, as things were too slow and clunky last week.

One thing Penrith would surely like to see is Viliame Kikau wake from his slumber. While oppositions are wary of the big unit and train to shut his powerful edge runs down, there’s no doubt he’s struggled to find that rampaging form that saw him become of the game’s household names.

Viliame Kikau needs to find some form. Photo: NRL Photos.

And so what of Cronulla? They sit in 10th spot with four wins and eight losses this season, a campaign derailed by the bizarre axing of coach John Morris early in the year.

You never know what Cronulla side is going to turn up, but with key players told they’re not wanted and recruitment for next season in overdrive, it’s hard to imagine their focus is on the 2021 campaign.

Given the Panthers belted Cronulla 48-0 just a month ago, a significant form reversal seems unlikely. With uncertainty around Penrith’s final line-up, it’s impossible to predict a repeat dose this time around, but the Panthers should get the job done – losing two in a row just isn’t in their DNA at present.

Tip: Panthers by 10.

Penrith and Cronulla play at Kogarah Oval on Friday, June 11 at 7.55pm.

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