A rare Sunday night timeslot greets the Penrith Panthers and St George-Illawarra Dragons at BlueBet Stadium this Sunday night as the State of Origin period plays havoc with team line-ups and weekend match schedules.
Much of the talk leading into this encounter has been about Penrith’s six State of Origin representatives, and whether they’ll back up from Wednesday night’s series opener in Adelaide.
There are obvious question marks over Brian To’o, Stephen Crichton, Jarome Luai, Nathan Cleary, Liam Martin and Isaah Yeo; with the Panthers medical staff working overtime to assess the impact of Wednesday night’s Origin on fitness levels heading into a Sunday night showdown.
It’s not the worst turnaround from Wednesday to Sunday but coach Ivan Cleary would have his eyes further down the road, pondering next weekend’s huge clash with the Sydney Roosters and whether three games in 11 days is too much for some of his top flight troops.
Cleary named all of the Origin players on Tuesday, but he’s experienced enough at this representative period caper now not to push too hard – if there’s even the smallest doubt over one of the Blues representatives, or a suggestion the workload will be too much, he’ll pull them out of the clash.
You can expect changes to the final 17 regardless, with both Izack Tago and Spencer Leniu named on the extended bench but both likely to play.
The Dragons aren’t without their own concerns attached to Origin, with Ben Hunt being asked to back up after playing hooker for Queensland on Wednesday night. He’ll face the same exams as the Penrith boys but is expected to play.
Unlike Cleary, stand-in Dragons coach Ryan Carr doesn’t have the luxury of being on top of the ladder during this Origin period. His Dragons are sitting in last place after a defeat at the hands of the Dolphins last Thursday night and there’s no sign of any great improvement in the wake of Anthony Griffin’s departure a few weeks ago. The reality of sacking a coach mid-season is that you are essentially putting the white flag up.
You would think the Dragons have given up on the prospect of playing Finals football, but a congested ladder means it’s more than mathematically possible – if they can find some much-needed wins.
Given they face the Panthers and Rabbitohs in consecutive weeks, it’s a tough ask – but back-to-back wins would certainly having us talking about the Dragons again.
With possession against them, the Dragons never really got into the contest against the Dolphins despite the closeness of the score at times.
You always felt Wayne Bennett’s men were in control, moreso because the Dragons were lacking any sort of killer punch.
A similar performance this week would see the Panthers tear the Dragons to shreds, especially given the bulk of Penrith’s squad enjoyed a bye last weekend – the perfect opportunity to clear up some niggling injuries and take in a well-deserved couple of days off.
Cleary will be looking to the likes of Dylan Edwards, James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota and a returning Leniu to have big games on Sunday night in an attempt to ease the pressure on the Origin players.
The front row is really the key here. Fisher-Harris and Leota have the opportunity to really lay the platform early and certainly have the measure of Francis and Michael Molo.
While a key player missing could throw a spanner in the works, I’m confident Penrith will get the job done pretty easily here. They’re just too professional for a Dragons side that doesn’t look like elevating beyond second gear this season.
Tip: Panthers by 14.
Penrith and St George-Illawarra play on Sunday, June 4 at BlueBet Stadium at 6.15pm. The match is live on Fox Sports and Kayo.
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.