Panthers tread water ahead of season’s biggest games

Dylan Edwards takes the ball up against the Roosters this season. Photo: NRL Photos.
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After looking the goods earlier in the season, the wheels have fallen off St George-Illawarra like a cheap barbeque.

They may sit just two points outside the top eight but with a poor for and against and four straight losses, it’s hard to see them making a late charge.

If they are to make some sort of a statement, their chance comes this Friday night against a Penrith side that bounced back into winning form last weekend with a hard fought 20-14 disposal of the Roosters.

It was far from clinical from Penrith but the confidence they’d get out of that win – especially without Nathan Cleary – would have been enormous.

Cleary has again been named in the squad for this match at Suncorp Stadium, but whether he plays is another matter. The halfback is right to go, but whether you risk that vulnerable shoulder in a game that doesn’t alter Penrith’s top four aspirations is the conundrum facing the coaching staff at present.

Matt Burton makes a break against the Roosters. Photo: NRL Photos.

It’s almost certain we’re headed for a Panthers v Rabbitohs showdown in week one of the Finals no matter what happens in the final month of the competition.

Adding to the confidence Ivan Cleary would have in the status quo, Matt Burton showed significant improvement last week, playing probably his best game in Penrith colours to help the side to victory. It was clear the Panthers missed Nathan Cleary’s game management towards the end of the contest, but that will come with more time for the likes of Burton and Jarome Luai.

Whatever halves combination Cleary ends up going with, it’ll get the job done.

As much as we’d like to see Penrith demolishing sides like they were at the start of the season, it’s quite clear Ivan Cleary is taking the slow and steady approach at present. You don’t earn any extra competition points by thrashing sides in August, it’s all about ensuring you have a healthy, positive side on the park when the big games arrive. Cleary has a side that is rarely down in confidence, so that’s an aspect he doesn’t have to work on significantly. And as for the healthy squad, there’s every chance Penrith will have every player available come the first week of the Finals.

So what about this Dragons team?

Try as they might – and you can’t fault their effort in most games – they just don’t have the cattle to be winning big games. They’ve conceded 484 points this season, double that of Penrith, and just don’t have the discipline and patience required to build what’s required to be a consistent winning side.

The broken leg to Ben Hunt was perhaps the final straw for the Dragons’ Finals chances – he’d been one of their best players in recent times and without his guidance it’s hard to see the side doing much over the last month of the regular season.

Ben Hunt is out injured. Photo: NRL Photos.

Tariq Sims is also missing due to suspension, but the Panthers will be without Kurt Capewell who also found himself on the charge sheet last weekend.

Meantime in a big blow for Penrith, Api Koroisau will miss the game after failing to have a contrary conduct charge overturned at the judiciary on Tuesday night.

The Dragons just don’t have enough tries in them to outscore Penrith in this one. I’m expecting a tight first half but the Panthers should put Anthony Griffin’s men away in the second. They’re just too professional to let this one slip.

Tip: Panthers by 16.

The Panthers and Dragons play at Suncorp Stadium on Friday, August 13 at 6pm.

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