In any other season, injuries to Jarome Luai, Stephen Crichton and Mitch Kenny just six weeks out from the Finals, before a crucial match with arch rivals Parramatta, would have had disaster written all over it.
But this is 2022 and with Penrith four wins clear on top of the competition ladder, it is instead an opportunity and a much-needed challenge.
There is no question about Penrith’s Premiership credentials. No question about a top four finish and a home Final. No question that the players out this week will come back.
Therefore, the need to constantly win each week in the same way, with the same players, simply isn’t there.
Sure, it’s fun to keep piling on the points, but Ivan Cleary is surely running out of things to learn in this dream run.
The opportunity to play a crucial match against a fellow Premiership hopeful with a few forced changes can only be a good thing.
It’s also a chance for Cleary to tinker with his bench rotation. I’ve never been convinced that running Kenny on as a middle forward mid-way through the second half is Penrith’s best use of the number 14, but that’s why I’m writing about footy and not coaching it.
Still, the chance to try new things, new rotations and new methods will be one I have no doubt Cleary will relish.
I’m not convinced the team named on Tuesday, however, will be the one that runs out on Friday night. I’d suggest some late changes, including the return of Moses Leota and possibly an NRL debut, are likely.
Penrith’s defence again came to the fore last week, denying the Sharks a second half point in what was in the end a scrappy, hard fought 20-10 win. It was probably just the kind of victory the Panthers needed.
This Friday night’s game against Parramatta shapes as the game of the round, with the Eels desperate to prove their Premiership credentials, while the Panthers would be keen to get one back on their western Sydney rivals after Brad Arthur’s men beat them earlier this season; still Penrith’s only loss this year.
After their dramatic Finals game last year, there’s no doubt that the Panthers v Eels rivalry has stepped up a gear, and Parramatta could argue they have Penrith’s measure in some areas.
Putting that to bed would be a huge physiological advantage for Ivan Cleary and the Panthers, particularly given they are destined to meet at some point in September.
The Eels were disappointing against Brisbane last weekend, and it’s not the first time this season they’ve had a significant period of lost concentration that ultimately cost them the game.
If such an occurrence happens this Friday night, there’s no question the Panthers will make them pay.
As much as the Eels would now rate their chances with Penrith’s injured trio missing, as long as Nathan Cleary and Issah Yeo are running the show, I have total faith that the Panthers will get the job done.
With the Origin hangover now gone, it’s time for a statement victory for Penrith against a fellow top eight side – and this may just be it.
I’m expecting a high scoring, yet generally close encounter.
Tip: Panthers by 6.
The Panthers and Eels play at CommBank Stadium on Friday, July 29 from 7.55pm.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Breaking News Reporter. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations. In 2023, he was named Editor of the Year at the Mumbrella Publish Awards.