Panthers become the hunted as new NRL season begins

Jarome Luai. Photo: NRL Photos.
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And just like that, here we are again. The start of a new season, with new expectations and a long road to October ahead.

Penrith come into the 2022 season as defending Premiers for the first time in almost two decades, an unfamiliar position as they become the hunted rather than the hunters.

This is also unprecedented territory for coach Ivan Cleary, who has so often developed his pre-seasons around going one better than the previous year, or lifting a rebuilding team from the bottom end of the ladder to safer ground.

Now, he is striving to ensure the 2021 Panthers were no flash in the pan. Back-to-back would be nice, obviously, but the first step is to ensure Penrith remains in the conversation with the likes of the Roosters and Storm as the NRL’s elite. Cleary and his side must prove that the 2020 and 2021 seasons were no abnormality; that normal programming when selecting the NRL’s Premiership favourites will always involve Penrith.

This opening game against Manly is intriguing for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is what history says about where this game will likely land.

Sean O’Sullivan at Panthers training. Photo: Penrith Panthers.

The Panthers haven’t lost a Premiership match at BlueBet Stadium since the middle of the 2019 season, while you have to go all the way back to June 2018 to find the last time Manly beat Penrith.

The Sea Eagles are also notorious slow starters to a season and have an awful first-up record, while the Panthers have generally started seasons well in recent years, particularly 2020 and 2021.

The big factor here is obviously Nathan Cleary. While it was hoped the champion halfback would be fit for this game, the club confirmed on Tuesday he’ll miss the opening three rounds of the season as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery.

Sean O’Sullivan comes into the halfback role with big shoes to fill, but he showed in the trials that he’ll be far from a mediocre replacement.

O’Sullivan was brought into the squad as cover for Cleary and the team would have anticipated this occurring at some stage – so it’s no major disruption.

O’Sullivan doesn’t have Cleary’s kicking game or game management skills but with premiership experience under their belt, the likes of Jarome Luai and Dylan Edwards will step up and take more of a leadership role in attack.

The Sea Eagles, who enjoyed an over-achieving season in 2021, will again rely on Tom Trbojevic to light up the field – and he’s the obvious danger man in this one.

Isaah Yeo. Photo: NRL Photos.

But Kieran Foran has been very vocal in the off-season about how keen he is to have a big impact this season, and alongside Daly Cherry-Evans will look to form a strong halves combination that takes the Sea Eagles deep into the season.

Even without Cleary, the Panthers at home on their own track – particularly given the weather this week – have the clear advantage. On paper, Penrith’s premiership-winning forward pack should be enough to get the job done.

Tip: Panthers by 8.

Penrith and Manly play at BlueBet Stadium on Thursday, March 10 at 8.05pm. The game is live on Fox League and Channel 9.

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