Forward slog set to decide top of the table blockbuster

Izack Tago in action against the Eels. Photo: Megan Dunn.
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Losing is such an unfamiliar feeling at the foot of the Mountains that Penrith fans probably took last week’s defeat at the hands of Parramatta a little too much to heart.

It was a big win for the Eels, a side with plenty to prove and clearly still steaming from that Finals loss to the Panthers last September.

For Penrith, losing these days is different than being forced to lament missing out on two important competition points. We know this Penrith side will be there when the whips are cracking, so it all comes down to what you learn from such defeats.

And whatever Penrith did learn, they’ll need to implement it quickly against new competition leaders Melbourne this Saturday as part of NRL Magic Round at Suncorp Stadium.

It’s the Panthers’ first visit to Suncorp since their historic Grand Final win over the Rabbitohs; and the big likely pro-Storm crowd in attendance will do little to rattle them given the experience of last October.

Unfortunately – or fortunately perhaps, as Penrith fans – Magic Round will lose one of its biggest assets with Storm fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen suffering a hamstring injury against the Dragons last Sunday that will force him to sit out this top of the table blockbuster.

Ryan Papenhuyzen was hurt last week. Photo: NRL Images.

Papenhuyzen has been in such sensational form that the bookies installed Melbourne as outsiders at the start of the week despite them scoring points like they’re going out of fashion over the past few weeks.

The Storm will also be without Reimis Smith who picked up a pectoral problem and this all presents something of an issue for the Storm – who are somewhat light on outside backs when it comes to depth. Dean Ieremia and Marion Seve are fine players but the Storm certainly look the weakest on paper they have this season.

The Panthers meanwhile will field a full strength side with the likes of Moses Leota and Brian To’o better for the run after returning from their respective injuries.

At the end of the day, two missed conversions from Nathan Cleary was the difference against the Eels. There is no real need to dissect every element of the performance and coach Ivan Cleary, who was forced to watch the game from his sick bed, will surely just focus on getting the little things right against a tough opponent like Melbourne.

Stephen Crichton in action against the Eels. Photo: Megan Dunn.

There’s no doubt Cleary will do plenty of work on the Storm’s halves. Cameron Munster and Jahrome Hughes are in rare form, almost toying with the opposition at times.

They’ll surely relish the opportunity to come up against Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary who are likely to give them their biggest challenge for some time.

This is a big game for Cleary. Against the best in the league, it is his kicking game and game management that will be key to Penrith’s success.

I have little doubt coach Craig Bellamy is looking forward to this game more than any other too. The Storm have had a soft draw of late, easily getting past teams and never looking like being beaten. Playing a team as good as Penrith will give Bellamy a real indicator of where his side is at.

I’m expecting this game to deliver an absolute belter – I can’t see either outfit running away with it and the wet weather in Brisbane will likely make this a forward slog, where the teams are evenly matched.

Tip: Panthers by 2.

Penrith and Melbourne play as part of Magic Round at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday, May 14 at 7.45pm. 

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