Panthers in unfamiliar territory as Sharks declare they’re the real deal

A dejected Penrith last Sunday. Photo: NRL Photos.
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For the first time in probably three years, Penrith go into a game this weekend that I have real doubts they can win.

On top of that, the Panthers are outsiders for Saturday’s clash against Cronulla according to the betting markets – another unfamiliar position for Ivan Cleary’s men.

But such a position is justified when you consider the last couple of weeks for both of these sides.

After being labelled soft competition leaders thanks to an easy draw to kick off the year, Cronulla have now beaten heavyweights Melbourne and the Roosters in successive weeks, and it would be hard now not to declare them the real deal.

Penrith meantime were far from impressive against Canterbury a fortnight ago and then fell to an under-strength Warriors team at Magic Round.

So what’s the problem at Penrith? Is it all related to Nathan Cleary being out with that hamstring drama?

That’s certainly part of the problem, especially considering the ‘next man up’ in Brad Schneider is also missing through injury.

But in reality it all comes down to discipline, or lack of it.

Jack Cole is hit in a crunching tackle. Photo: NRL Photos.

Discipline has been a real mainstay of this Penrith team in the past three or four years. Commitment to defence, and to each other, and an almost steel-like approach to games that just completely shut out opposition sides.

But let’s look at the Panthers of 2024.

Hooker Mitch Kenny leads the competition in missed tackles. Izack Tago has conceded more penalties than any other player in the competition.

The Panthers themselves have conceded the third most. The Panthers have the most ineffective tackles in the competition.

The list goes on.

In short, Penrith just aren’t themselves.

Even in the games they’ve won this season, something hasn’t been quite right.

But here’s the good news: this is an experienced footy side, and I have no doubt that when the whips get cracking at the back end of the season, the Panthers will rise to their best again.

It’s hard to be ‘up’ for a whole season let alone three or four. Let’s be real – this is the fifth season we’re expecting the Panthers to deliver consistently good performances, and it’s quite an ask.

Something was always going to give.

Sunia Turuva takes on the Canterbury defence. Photo: Megan Dunn.

Not all hope is lost, and when Cleary does return, Penrith surely would have banked enough points to have a legitimate shot at the top four, and then that experience will mean plenty come Finals time.

As for the here and now, Ivan Cleary can only ask for a more committed performance than the one he got against the Warriors on Sunday.

Back to that dedication to each other, and to the values that hold the footy side together.

Silly errors cost his side against the Warriors and he’ll surely be working on discipline with the ball as much as without it.

Possession wins footy games and the Panthers were determined to starve themselves of it last weekend.

The one serious vulnerability Cronulla has is that they do have a tendency to leak points – even last week against the Roosters they conceded 30 despite winning.

Jarome Luai in action against the Bulldogs last Friday. Photo: Megan Dunn.

But they’ve managed to only concede 158 points in total so far this season – a decent record, and the second best in the competition. The best defensive team in the comp though? That’s the Panthers. That does swing the pendulum in Penrith’s favour a little.

Regardless, I’m expecting a tight tussle on Saturday – a bounce of the ball could decide it.

Tip: Panthers by 1.

Penrith and Cronulla play at PointsBet Stadium on Saturday, May 25 at 5.35pm. The game is live on Fox League.

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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