Ivan Cleary’s management of the next two weeks will be intriguing to watch.
Until now, there has always been something to play for – a home Final, the Minor Premiership, choose your poison.
But with the J.J. Giltinan Shield bubble wrapped in Andrew Abdo’s boot and heading to BlueBet Stadium on Friday night, the mission for Penrith over the next fortnight is to simply get through the games against the Warriors and Cowboys unscathed.
All eyes are very much now on the Finals and that first game at BlueBet in a fortnight’s time, but there’s still 160 minutes of football to come between now and then.
This Friday’s twilight game against the Warriors gives Penrith a chance to flex their muscle against a bottom eight side with little to play for, likely eyeing off a nice off-season break. While the Warriors will not necessarily be easybeats, their performance against the Cowboys last Friday would suggest they may have put the cue in the rack for season 2022, and there’s no doubt a trip from across the Tasman to the foot of the Mountains to play the defending champions in front of a sellout home crowd is a daunting task.
The Panthers welcome back James Fisher-Harris for this one, and importantly Jarome Luai returns early from a knee injury. He will partner with Sean O’Sullivan as the Panthers start to feel a little bit of normalcy again.
O’Sullivan has done well in Cleary’s absence. He lacks the game management of the competition’s top halfback in Nathan Cleary but his kicking game against the Rabbitohs last weekend was superb. He also likes to play to the right which has given the likes of Stephen Crichton more ball and perhaps made Penrith a little more unpredictable (not that there’s much any team can do to stop the left-side onslaught when it’s firing).
His kicking game will again be important here – if he keeps turning the Warriors around, it’ll frustrate them out of the game as the minutes roll on, especially if Penrith turn up with the defensive attitude they showed against Souths last Thursday night.
But Luai’s return will ensure the pressure is eased on O’Sullivan somewhat, or at least the spotlight is not as bright.
With a set completion rate better than any other side in the competition (81 per cent), Penrith should be able go through the motions here and get the job done with relative ease, potentially allowing Cleary to rest some players as the game draws on.
With the likes of Melbourne, Parramatta, the Roosters, Souths and North Queensland producing devastating scorelines last weekend, there’s a school of thought that Penrith too needs to put on a score to prove they’re ready for the Finals and in the kind of form that September football calls for.
While I’m not sure a cricket score is necessarily needed here, it would certainly be a strong response to what some of the other contenders have produced – and it’d be nice to watch too.
I’m struggling to see anything other than a Penrith win here. In the end, it might just be a question of by how much.
Tip: Panthers by 24.
Penrith and the Warriors play on Friday, August 26 at BlueBet Stadium from 6.00pm.
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.