Round 15: Penrith v Sydney Roosters preview
The cavalry has returned and Ivan Cleary has swung the axe too.
After dropping two-straight games, Penrith will aim to right the ship against a Roosters side that has constantly shown the pluck Cleary desperately needed in the past fortnight.
Penrith were hardly threatening in the first half last week against Cronulla.
Tyrone May only had a passing game at his disposal, refusing to take the line on or share the kicking duties with Matt Burton. This may have been the coaching call of Cleary or a reflection of May's limited skillset as a player better suited to being a ball-playing forward. Instead he was thrown into the No. 7 jersey and drifted across field, easy to defend given it was unlikely he would run or kick.
Burton too struggled in the first half with an inaccurate kicking game while he did not record a single run metre. It was the young five-eighth though that provided the much-needed spark to inspire a second-half fightback that just fell short when a poor fifth-tackle option exposed Penrith's lack of direction without Cleary and Luai.
May's poor performances in the past two weeks and the emergence of young gun Izack Tago has seen the utility dumped to the reserves. Cleary, Luai, Yeo and Kurt Capewell return after being rested while Viliame Kikau is out with a hamstring complaint, seeing Liam Martin start.
Penrith's opposition this week are the perfect example of what playing through adversity looks like.
Trent Robinson's men have had all the excuses to drop away this season but constantly turned up - doing the same last Saturday as they outlasted an epic fightback to pip the Titans 35-34. Everyone has been waiting for the Roosters to fall away as the injuries pile up but Robinson's ability to inspire continues to carry them forward. The Tricolours also are boosted by key inclusions with James Tedesco, Sam Verrills and Siosiua Taukeiaho returning while Billy Smith has been named on the bench.
A victory over the Panthers on Friday will see the Roosters draw within two points of last year's ladder leaders - although with a bye already up their sleeve.
The Roosters were admittedly less than convincing last week in the one-point win over the Gold Coast and can expect a fired up Penrith unit bolstered by big inclusions.
Who to watch: So much was made about the loss of Cleary and Luai in the past fortnight but Isaah Yeo's absence was also telling. The Tigers and Sharks exposed Penrith's sloppy ruck defence without the tireless Yeo in the middle cleaning up for others. Not only that but Yeo also was key to NSW's dominant Origin I victory, linking with the halves on both sides of the field with quick passes. Yeo is crucial to the flow of Penrith's attack on both sides of the field and without that link in the chain the Panthers looked rudderless.
Meanwhile, the injury setback for Kikau sees Martin into the starting side for Penrith and he lines up against the man gunning to take his spot in the Blues side. A fellow Temora product, Angus Crichton missed the opener through suspension. Martin did not put a foot wrong as he physically imposed himself with an aggressive stint off the bench. Crichton though has proven himself a consistently strong performer at rep level so he will only strengthen his chances of selection by exposing his opposite man in Crichton.
My tip: The Roosters actually have the advantage in the back five while the battle of two heavyweight forward packs is also very close. The class of the spine though tips this in Penrith's favour. Add in their faltering form in the last fortnight and there is plenty of motivation for a big bounce back. Penrith by 18.