Round 11: Panthers v Wests Tigers preview
Family bragging rights up for grabs as Western Sydney rivals face off
The irony is absolutely beautiful. Of all the weeks he could have returned, Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary will make his long-awaited comeback from a knee injury against his father Ivan's Wests Tigers. As Cleary Senior has playfully suggested throughout the week, he will have to be particularly creative in his attempts to sideline his skilful son with Cleary suggesting that a bit of Mr. Sheen on the floorboards may do the trick. All jokes aside, Cleary's return for the Panthers is a massive boost yet it is expected that the rejuvenated James Maloney will still be the leader of the side as to relieve pressure from the 20-year-old. The pair will have a disrupted reunion, however, with Maloney missing Tuesday's training session after his partner went into labour. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how Penrith's first-choice halves pairing performs given that both Maloney and Cleary are traditionally dominant playmakers.
The return of Cleary sees Tyrone Peachey shift to the centres with Isaah Yeo reverting to the backrow, pushing Viliame Kikau to the bench. In other team news, skipper and hooker Peter Wallace is sidelined with a minor shoulder injury and the home side will miss his leadership and toughness in defence. However, his absence has a silver lining as it presents an opportunity for Sione Katoa and Wayde Egan to press their claims for the No. 9 jersey at Penrith once Wallace retires. Both are highly rated at the Foot of the Mountains with Katoa's speed out of dummy-half a particularly exciting prospect for Penrith fans. Young forward Jack Hetherington also returns on the bench after missing out on last week's win over Newcastle through suspension. The 29-18 victory was impressive given Penrith's long injury-list yet ill-discipline made them work harder than they needed to and coach Anthony Griffin will be hoping for an improvement in that category.
The family affair is not restricted to just the Cleary's on Thursday night, however, with brothers Dallin and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak facing off. The latter may not have taken the field had Mahe Fonua turned up on time for training on Sunday. Fonua claimed man-of-the-match honours after his dominant display in the Tigers' 20-12 win over the Cowboys last week. However, in dropping Fonua coach Ivan Cleary has made a clear statement that no player is bigger than the team. The Tigers still have plenty of strike out wide but it is their rampaging forward pack that could pose the greatest concern to the Panthers on Thursday night.
Led by Russell Packer, the Tigers' big men have been a significant reason for their team's success this year and have laid a very strong platform for the improving Luke Brooks to play off. Last week's win over North Queensland demonstrated the importance of getting the fundamentals right. In their 26-4 loss to the Warriors a fortnight ago, the Tigers completed just 63% of their sets. In contrast, their win last week was built on the back of an 88% completion rate. If the Tigers can replicate that effort against the Panthers it will go a long way to ensuring victory.
Last meeting: Round 22 2017 - Panthers 28 Wests Tigers 14
Nathan Cleary got one over the old man in the last time these two sides met. The Panthers stormed home to claim a 28-14 win in Round 22 last year.
Who to watch: Trent Merrin has come out this week and strong expressed his desire to return to the State of Origin arena in 2018. Merrin hasn't donned a sky-blue jersey since Game 3 in 2015, yet he has been very strong for the Panthers since moving to the front row this year. It seemed like the former Dragon's hopes of an Origin recall were dashed only a fortnight ago after he suffered a dislocated finger yet Merrin somehow returned for last week's battle against Newcastle - and he was enormous up front. Merrin led the Panthers for running metres and post-contact metres with 165 and 75 respectively.
This week, Merrin faces off against Tigers enforcer Russell Packer. Packer has been described by coach Cleary as the glue that holds the Tigers side together and that was evident in the role he played in last week's win over the Cowboys. Packer played for just 40 minutes, yet in that time he managed 101 running metres and was very strong in defence. Penrith's victory over Newcastle last week was built on their dominance in the middle of the park and Packer will be pivotal to attempting to stop their momentum on Thursday night.