We meet again: Unbeaten Panthers meet seething Rabbitohs

Stephen Crichton scoring against Newcastle. Photo: NRL Images.
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Penrith go into this Round 4 clash against South Sydney in the best possible position as the only unbeaten team in the competition and with players now starting to return after an early season injury crisis.

Leading the charge is halfback Nathan Cleary, ironically returning against the side who he dismantled in last year’s Grand Final, winning the Clive Churchill Medal in the process.

The return of Cleary is significant but as proven over the past few weeks, the club’s “next man up” mentality is well and truly working as the Panthers now become one of those sides who prove almost unbeatable no matter who runs out in the jersey.

This game offers plenty of hype in the lead-up, mainly focused on the Rabbitohs and the perceived revenge they’re seeking against the side that robbed them of their 22nd premiership.

Nathan Cleary in last year’s Grand Final. Photo: NRL Images.

I’m not sure these Grand Final re-matches are ever anything more than marketing hype for the media and fans – surely no Rabbitohs player is seeing a Round 4 win as some sort of restitution for losing a Premiership decider?

Regardless, it’d be huge for the Rabbitohs if they could claim the scalp of the Premiers. After a shaky first couple of weeks (albeit, they put Melbourne to the sword), Souths came alive last Friday against the Roosters, delivering a powerful performance that reignited hope they could indeed be a top four side.

Both these sides have conceded an average of 14 points this season, but the Panthers are averaging 28 in attack and Souths just 15. The Rabbitohs therefore will need to find more tries against a stoic Penrith defence than they have all season – not an easy task, though they certainly found their attacking mojo against the Roosters.

Taylan May celebrates a try against Newcastle. Photo: NRL Images.

Cleary’s kicking game will be important here, especially against the likes of Latrell Mitchell and Alex Johnston who can be dangerous in open space. As good as Sean O’Sullivan has been in the first three weeks of the season, he doesn’t have the depth to his kicking game that Cleary offers and that’ll be a most welcome difference on Friday.

I’m still a little worried about Penrith’s left-side defence – Izack Tago and Taylan May’s tackle efficiency is poor and they missed six tackles between them last weekend against the Knights. There’s no doubt Cody Walker will send plenty of attack their way on Friday.

Danger man: Cody Walker. Photo: NRL Images.

It’ll come down to the opportunities presented close to the line and with both James Fisher-Harris and Liam Martin possibly back this week, Penrith’s forwards should lay the platform for Cleary and Jarome Luai to do their thing.

I’ve got little doubt this will be a high quality game of footy, but with Penrith’s incredible winning run at home and Cleary back on deck, it’s hard to see an upset emerging here.

Tip: Panthers by 12.

The Panthers and Rabbitohs play at BlueBet Stadium on Friday, April 1 at 8.05pm.

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