As the minutes ticked down and the scoreboard kept clicking over against Canterbury last Sunday, there’s no doubt Penrith coach Ivan Cleary’s mind would have drifted from CommBank Stadium to this Friday’s game against Brisbane at home.
It’s likely why co-captain Isaah Yeo played just 57 minutes, compared to the 80 he punched out against the Rabbitohs the week prior. And why fullback Dylan Edwards was handed a well earned break at the back end of the game.
It’s the luxury you have when your team is five from five and humming along nicely. All of a sudden it doesn’t have to be ‘one game at a time’, you can start to meticulously plan how things will unfold weeks in advance.
The Panthers face a couple of these five day turnarounds in the next little while and Cleary’s management of his players through the period will be critical, particularly with some traditional firepower still missing in the shape of Moses Leota and Brian To’o.
One thing that’s become clear at Penrith is how important the back five are to the go-forward the team is achieving at present. It’s serving the forward pack well, allowing key players to spend more time on the field and keeping them fitter when they are.
As a result, the Panthers are just running all over teams. Last week the side clocked up more than 1600 run metres, compared to 1088 from Canterbury. Their average set distance, kick return metres and post contact metres all dwarfed the Bulldogs.
And yes, Canterbury are a team struggling to find form at present but this is a pretty regular occurrence from Ivan Cleary’s side. It’s hard to find another side defending the Premiership that has had such a dominant start to a new season.
This Good Friday clash with Brisbane comes at the perfect time.
Being the planner he is, Cleary would know that a trio of big games awaits in May – Eels, Storm, Roosters back-to-back. With the Broncos, Raiders and Titans to face in the weeks leading up to those enormous contests, Penrith will get to test themselves against middle of the road opposition – sides who can certainly turn it on, but aren’t quite producing complete performances.
It’s clear the Panthers are ready to be tested against the better sides but this run of games will give them the opportunity to fine tune things and ensure their fitness peaks when things start to get serious.
That’s not to discount the Broncos on Friday. They gave the Roosters a real run for their money last weekend and Adam Reynolds was always going to take time to find his feet before this team became his.
It’s all a matter of which Broncos team turns up. If it’s the one that troubled the Roosters, anything could happen here. But if it’s the one that got hammered by the Cowboys a couple of weeks back, the Panthers will turn them into mince meat.
I suspect like most teams, they’ll aim up against the Premiers, but once Payne Haas was ruled out this week, my thoughts of a close contest went out the window.
After two weeks warming back into things, I’m expecting a real stand-out performance from Nathan Cleary here. Lock him in for a try and perhaps three Dally M points too.
Penrith will get home – and they should get the job done easily.
Tip: Panthers by 24.
Penrith and Brisbane play at BlueBet Stadium on Friday, April 15 at 7.55pm.
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.