There’s a long way to go in this competition, but Penrith’s performance against Manly last Thursday night proved one important thing – there is no Premiership hangover present in Ivan Cleary’s squad.
Sure, everything from injuries to Origin will play a part in determining Penrith’s ability to go back-to-back, but any fears that the side would struggle to adapt to their new role as the hunted don’t appear, this early at least, to have come to fruition.
Penrith never allowed Manly into the contest. It was one of the best round one performances I can remember – certainly not reflecting a side that had a late start to pre-season and had been belted in a trial just a fortnight earlier.
This Friday Cleary’s side hit the road for the first time this season to take on a St George-Illawarra team buoyed by a first-up win over the Warriors last weekend.
I admit I like the Dragons this year – I don’t think they’ll be lifting any trophies come October but BBQ-gate last year will ultimately emerge as the line in the sand coach Anthony Griffin was looking for. The side looks much more settled and confident this year – and I was impressed with the way they fought back after falling behind at one stage of the game.
Depth was always going to be an issue for Penrith this year and the reality of that is starting to set in, with Nathan Cleary still sidelined and now Moses Leota facing an extended stint in recovery after picking up a shoulder problem.
Spencer Leniu comes into the starting side for Leota, while Matt Eisenhuth moves onto the interchange bench. While Eisenhuth has plenty to offer, that bench is starting to look a little thin on the ground compared to the sides that used to run around in 2020 and 2021.
Still, there is much to like about Penrith and their chances in this game.
Isaah Yeo was brilliant in the middle for the Panthers last week, as he has been for many seasons now. While the rest of the NRL world is slowly waking to Yeo’s importance, he still doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the punch that Penrith offer as they power up the park.
All eyes will again be on Sean O’Sullivan, who must now deal with the wraps that came his way following last week’s win. There is now an expectation on his shoulders that wasn’t there just a week ago, and how he handles that will be important to Penrith’s chances. It’ll be a mental game more than anything for him this week.
The Dragons have got plenty of points in them – the likes of Tyrell Sloan, Moses Suli and Mikaele Ravalawa will make sure of that – but you need a strong forward pack setting the groundwork before those points can flow. My big question mark still hanging over the Dragons is if the likes of Jack Bird and Aaron Woods can really stay up as the season progresses.
Penrith’s forward pack, even without Leota, remains ferocious and predictable in its ability to make the ground required to lay the platform for points.
I’m expecting a somewhat high scoring encounter on Friday night – and while I think the Dragons can give this one a real shake, Penrith’s class should get the job done in the end.
Tip: Panthers by 6.
Penrith and St George-Illawarra play on Friday, March 18 at Kogarah Oval from 6pm.
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.