We had always anticipated that Penrith would be without some of their biggest names at different points during the State of Origin period.
What we didn’t expect is key playmaker Nathan Cleary to go down with an injury that will not only force him out of Origin II (and probably III), but will see him miss a number of matches for the Panthers.
It’s a huge blow but like his suspension last year and his shoulder injury in 2021, it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. A mid-season rest, especially after the exhausting World Cup campaign, probably isn’t such a bad thing in the big scheme of things.
None of that necessarily helps the here and now though and the Panthers go into Saturday night’s showdown with the Roosters at Allianz Stadium without their key man, as they desperately try to hold on to top spot on the NRL ladder.
Jack Cogger will fill Cleary’s shoes and an ironic twist of fate to have him on the bench last weekend means we’ve already had a glimpse at what he can do.
While Cogger doesn’t have the skillset of Cleary nor the game management skills, he’s a quality player with an impressive kicking game, which we saw a fair bit of against the Dragons.
The Roosters are not without their own issues heading out of Round 14, with Joseph Suaalii to miss this clash with Penrith after being hit with a Dangerous Contact charge. Amidst a heap of outside noise, Suaalii hasn’t necessarily been setting the world on fire this year but it’s still a significant loss.
I have no doubt Trent Robinson considers this Saturday night’s game as one of the most crucial of his side’s season so far.
The Roosters are not where anybody expected them to be, but getting a big scalp like Penrith could certainly put their season back on track. And given they were on the end of a spanking at the hands of the Panthers just a month ago, perhaps it would be a good indicator of how well they’ve responded in the weeks that followed.
If Penrith somehow win big again, every Roosters fan would surely question their team’s ability to match it with the better sides and would be pondering a rare Finals miss in 2023.
The Roosters’ 25-24 victory over the Bulldogs last weekend wasn’t the most impressive of the season, but it was two competition points they desperately needed. From a players’ perspective, it was a nice confidence boost and there was some solid individual performances including from James Tedesco who responded to a week of criticism in the best way possible.
Penrith’s performance against the Dragons meanwhile is hard to gauge given the loss of Cleary so early. It was a gritty win in the end, with Isaah Yeo in particular standing up to provide the leadership needed to get the Panthers home.
I’m not expecting Penrith to dominate the Roosters as much as they did at BlueBet Stadium back on May 12. But in what will be Penrith’s first visit to the new Allianz Stadium, I think they’ll have enough firepower to win.
There’s no question that Jarome Luai is an important piece of the puzzle here – he needs to provide some of the game management in the halves that Penrith will lack without Cleary. He needs to show some patience close to the line and improve his kicking game.
But if the Panthers can win the forward battle like they did in the earlier clash, I’m struggling to see a world in which the Roosters get home. The boys from Bondi will put in an improved effort, but it’s hard to see a form reversal of any great significance happening – Cleary or no Cleary.
Tip: Panthers by 10.
The Panthers and Roosters clash at Allianz Stadium on Saturday, June 10 at 7.35pm. The game 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.