The Panthers return to their home away from home this Saturday afternoon to take on a red hot Newcastle Knights side at Carrington Park in Bathurst.
The regional NSW town will be delivered a top of the table blockbuster with both sides winning their first two matches heading into a game that is very much 50/50 – particularly given the defending Premiers’ injury toll.
Brian To’o became the latest casualty, now facing a long stint on the sidelines with a knee injury. Taylan May comes into the side on the wing.
One thing that could turn this game on its head is the possible return of Nathan Cleary, who has been named on the extended bench. It’s an unlikely proposition, but anything is possible.
It’s hard to get a gauge on this Newcastle side, which remains significant outsiders in Premiership betting despite their impressive form to kick off the season.
And while it’s true that you can only play what’s in front of you, there’s no doubt the Knights have come up against a totally unprepared Roosters and a woeful Tigers side in their opening two games. Saturday very much marks their first true test.
As for Penrith, there’s no doubt they benefited from the 50/50 calls and had some luck go their way last week – it was far from the performance we saw against the Sea Eagles the previous week. But with plenty of on-the-run changes forced through injury and Cleary out, there’s no need to be too concerned – and they got the two points at the end of the day.
The Knights have proven they’ve got plenty of spark in attack and have found a new stoic defensive form, conceding just 10 points in their opening two games. This won’t be a case of Penrith being able to grind out a win – they’ll have to put a big score on to contain this Newcastle backline.
Confidence can do plenty to your week-to-week chances in the NRL and if nothing else, the Knights will benefit from back-to-back victories to start a season that very few experts considered they’d give a shake.
Adam O’Brien knows he hasn’t necessarily got a Premiership-winning squad on his hands but he can very much start building one from this group if they keep playing for each other like they have against the Roosters and Tigers.
The Knights will also be sweating on the fitness of captain Kalyn Ponga, who was named on Tuesday but remains in doubt with a knee problem.
With Moses Leota out and James Fisher-Harris not 100 per cent right after picking up a slight injury last week, there’s no doubt Penrith will find it harder to get the yards required for the backs to do their thing.
That’s why the side’s kicking game must be particularly strong this week – giving Newcastle any extra yardage could be catastrophic in a game where field position is likely to be everything.
The people of Bathurst are in for a real treat here – I’m predicting plenty of tries, not something we always see in Penrith games given how much defence has played a pivotal role in the last couple of years.
Tip: Panthers in golden point.
Penrith and Newcastle play on Saturday, March 26 at Carrington Park, Bathurst from 3pm.
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.