Opportunities galore as Panthers battle Chooks at Allianz

Izack Tago in action against the Broncos. Photo: Megan Dunn.
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Round 4 of the NRL kicks off with what is arguably the match of the round between the Panthers and Roosters, both having enjoyed two wins so far this season and both coming off big wins last weekend.

But the biggest story heading into this game has been who is not playing rather than who is, with Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary ruled out due to a hamstring injury.

It’s a significant blow for Penrith, but opens the door for Brad Schneider to make his club debut. He follows in the footsteps of Sean O’Sullivan and Jack Cogger in stepping into Cleary’s shoes.

Meantime, a knee injury to Scott Sorensen will see Mavrik Geyer make his long-awaited first grade debut. He’s been named on the bench and while it’s an away game, you can imagine the reception when he runs on.

Out: Nathan Cleary. Photo: Megan Dunn.

The Panthers were strong against Brisbane last week, never really letting their 2023 Grand Final opponents into the contest and Cleary weaving his magic across the park. The game did fizzle out in the last half hour or so, but so early in the season you’d rather put the car in neutral than put the pedal to the metal.

The Roosters were clinical against old rivals the Rabbitohs, piling more pain on coach Jason Demetriou and signalling that they will be a mighty player in this Premiership race as the season rolls on.

The two sides are fairly evenly balanced heading into this clash – the Roosters have conceded 37 points, Penrith 38. The Roosters have an average completion rate of 80 per cent, the Panthers 78 per cent. In short, it could go either way on paper.

But the loss of Cleary will weigh heavily on Penrith, and it certainly turned the betting markets completely around earlier this week.

Jarome Luai in action against Brisbane. Photo: Megan Dunn.

Conversely, the Roosters have received some positive news when it comes to their halfback Sam Walker. He’s been cleared to play despite initially being designated a category one concussion last Friday night.

I’m expecting the Roosters to take Penrith on up the middle, taking some inspiration from Parramatta’s ultimately failed attempt at breaking in the front door a fortnight ago.

There’s been the odd sign that the Panthers are vulnerable in the middle so far this season and with Sorensen and James Fisher-Harris both out, Trent Robinson may sense an opportunity.

Of course when given the chance, the Roosters will be heading wide with kicks, with Daniel Tupou and Dominic Young boasting a significant height advantage over their Penrith counterparts. You can expect Sunia Turuva and Brian To’o to be peppered with bombs.

Penrith will no doubt be getting plenty of ball to Izack Tago who is showing all the signs of a standout season, leading the competition in line breaks and having already scored three tries this season.

Brian To’o grabs some hard-earned metres. Photo: Megan Dunn.

I’m not over-stating it when I say this deserves to be billed as the game of the year so far – Trent Robinson and his Roosters bouncing back after an up-and-down season last year and clearly looking fit and strong, up against Ivan Cleary and his Panthers who just keep winning regardless of the circumstances and player departures put in front of them.

No Nathan Cleary does make me nervous, but I reckon Penrith will sneak home.

Tip: Panthers by 2.

The Panthers and Roosters play at Allianz Stadium on Thursday, March 28 at 8.00pm. The game is love on Fox League and Channel 9.

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