Saturday showdown will answer plenty of questions for Panthers, Cowboys

Isaah Yeo was one of Penrith's best against the Tigers. Photo: NRL Photos.
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This Saturday’s clash between the Panthers and Cowboys in Townsville will provide some legitimate insight into where both teams sit at this stage of the season.

Penrith are tracking in a similar fashion to last year, but there’s a feeling they’ve come back to the pack a little. Just how they go on their first interstate trip since Round 1 against a side that failed to fire against the Sharks last Sunday and has some real question marks over its defence will be telling.

And North Queensland, how they respond to coach Todd Payton’s razzing in the press conference last Sunday following the capitulation to Cronulla will inform how they travel for the rest of the season. After some promising signs early, things aren’t looking so good for the Cowboys at the moment.

I thought the Panthers were solid without being brilliant against the Tigers last Saturday in Bathurst. Importantly, they muscled up when they needed to and did enough to get the two competition points relatively comfortably in the end. Some solid work in the middle by Isaah Yeo really laid the platform for a dominant second half.

Scott Sorensen in action last weekend. Photo: NRL Photos.

But there’s definitely plenty to work on. The return of Nathan Cleary to manage the game will be critical this weekend. As much as Jarome Luai and Brad Schneider have held the fort reasonably well during his three week absence, it can’t be denied that the Panthers have lacked direction at times without Cleary running the show.

Taylan May has also been named to return this weekend and his power game will be critical against the Cowboys. Paul Alamoti did a fine job filling in, but May certainly offers an X-factor.

There is no doubt that North Queensland’s defence needs to improve if they are any chance of beating the Panthers on Saturday. They’re conceding an average of 27 points per game (compared to Penrith’s 15) which is just extraordinary. Such a statistic does not a top eight team make.

But we know in the NRL that bounce-back is a significant factor, especially when you get to play a home game after copping a thrashing. There would be no better cure for the Cowboys’ woes than to forget about that game against Cronulla and beat the Premiers back in Townsville on Saturday night – North Queensland’s preferred timeslot.

The Panthers celebrate a try. Photo: NRL Photos.

But after losses to both the Sharks and Eels (who are going terribly) on the trot, and their last home game being a high scoring 35-22 win over Gold Coast, perhaps this North Queensland team just doesn’t have what it takes this year.

Penrith have a chance to confirm that, and to make a statement of their own.

It was around this time last year that things really started to click for Ivan Cleary’s side after a mixed start to the year.

After losses to the Rabbitohs and Tigers, Penrith went on a five game winning streak and set up what would ultimately be a Minor Premiership and Premiership winning season.

Despite some worrying signs, I’d say Cleary has his Panthers sitting just where he wants them at the moment. And to grab two wins from three without your best player on the park, is something that shouldn’t be under-valued.

Nathan Cleary will return against the Cowboys. Photo: Megan Dunn.

I’m concerned the Cowboys may just spring an upset here, but on paper, there’s no reason Penrith shouldn’t get the job done – and if they’re switched on, they may well run away with it in the end.

Tip: Panthers by 16.

Penrith and North Queensland play at QLD Country Bank Stadium on Saturday, April 27 at 7.35pm. The game is live on Fox League and Kayo.

Troy Dodds

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.

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