Such is the weirdness of COVID-19’s impact on the NRL, the Penrith Panthers will call Suncorp Stadium home for the first time this Saturday night when they face the venue’s usual permanent tenants, the Brisbane Broncos.
There is a huge test at play here, not so much for the lowly Broncos, but for Ivan Cleary’s one-time Premiership favourites.
Earlier this season plenty of people were prepared to call this year’s competition a one horse race, with the Panthers looking near-certainties to lift the trophy at Stadium Australia on the first Sunday in October. The Melbourne Storm had lost two games in a row early in the campaign and were adjusting to life without Cameron Smith, so they probably wouldn’t be there at the business end, many said.
Fast forward to Round 19 and Melbourne have bolted. Sure, the Panthers share the competition lead but Craig Bellamy’s side is carving up opposition teams like it’s a training run, taking over as Premiership favourites and looking more and more likely to go back-to-back as the weeks march on.
Penrith meantime have been winning, but not convincingly. I think we can all accept that a 30-16 scoreline last weekend was far from impressive given the Warriors played the entire second half without any available interchange players, while the victory over Parramatta a fortnight ago was shaky at best.
But as the competition ladder shows, you get two points for a win regardless of how impressive it was – and with Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary missing, it’s somewhat acceptable that Penrith haven’t been as crisp as the Storm during this middle part of the season. That, however, needs to change.
Ahead of a showdown with the Storm next weekend that is shaping as the Minor Premiership decider, this Penrith team simply must put the cleaners through Brisbane. They must show their superiority, and sound a warning sign to the Storm that they are well and truly still in this fight.
The Broncos are shot – letting the Wests Tigers put 40 points on you is evidence enough of that. They’ve got some decent young players but it’s clear things aren’t clicking at the moment and there’s likely some serious questions coming coach Kevin Walters’ way in the off-season.
Once a side pressures Brisbane, the house begins to collapse. Penrith have the players to provide almost 80 minutes of pressure and there’s no question they should be able to put Walters’ men to the sword on Saturday night.
Jarome Luai returns for Penrith and while it’ll be Nathan Cleary’s comeback that really puts the wheels back on Penrith’s campaign, Luai coming back into the side is a monstrous bonus – his energy in the halves will certainly lift Penrith and create more try-scoring opportunities.
As much as it improved last week, the halves combination of Matt Burton and Tyrone May simply doesn’t deliver the points it needs to.
I’m expecting the likes of Kurt Capewell, Viliame Kikau and Isaah Yeo to have big games. This is the type of match that big, mobile edge forwards can make their own.
As the season enters the business end, sides like the Broncos will start to wilt further as the prospect of playing Finals football disappears. While the Suncorp factor may play a part, I can’t see Penrith being beaten here. But will they put the foot down?
Tip: Panthers by 26.
Penrith and Brisbane play on Saturday, July 24 at 7.35pm at Suncorp Stadium.
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.