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8:05pm Thu March 10, 2022
Round 1 - BlueBet Stadium, Penrith - Crowd: 16901

Round 1: Panthers v Sea Eagles preview

Cleary-less Panthers look to make early statement in title defence

They were the two best players in rugby league heading into 2022 and it looked like we would be treated to having them face off in the opening round of the new season. But with Nathan Cleary still not 100 per cent ready to return from shoulder surgery, Tom Trbojevic will instead be the headline act as the Manly Sea Eagles play the Penrith Panthers on Thursday night.

It is actually not much of a setback for Penrith given it will need to learn to survive without Cleary during the troublesome Origin period. While Jarome Luai will also likely be missing at that point later in the season, these early rounds will still be valuable for fill-in halfback Sean O'Sullivan as he acclimatises in new surroundings.

New surroundings though may not be completely accurate for O'Sullivan, with his switch to Penrith representing somewhat of a homecoming for the 23-year-old. O'Sullivan came through the Panthers system as a junior and played alongside several of the current first-graders.

While Cleary's absence will be felt, five-eighth Luai has full confidence in O'Sullivan.

"It doesn't change much at all - Sully has come in and done a great job, he's really bought into our culture and systems. He's really fitted into Nath's shoes really well," Luai told reporters.

"He was a year younger than me coming through the system - I got the opportunity to play with Sully at school footy.

"I've played touch footy with Sully back when we were 12, so I've known him for a while and he's always been around in the system."

It will be just as much of a challenge for Luai, who lost his way without Cleary last year and admitted to as much.

Manly are not without its own injury concerns, with Josh Schuster and Dylan Walker sidelined. Haumole Olakau'atu though has surprisingly been named to make an early return from an elbow injury with new recruit Ethan Bullemor also slotting in the second-row.

The Sea Eagles were the biggest improvers of 2021, going all the way to the preliminary final before falling short against the Rabbitohs. 

The challenge will be replicating that same form with higher expectations and the off-season providing rival teams with more time to study Trbojevic and work out the best way to shut him down.

Last meeting: Round 8 2021 - Panthers 28 Sea Eagles 16

Who to watch: For Penrith, it will be interesting to see how the situation in the centres plays out. Matt Burton was a revelation in the new role last year, offering a short kicking game close to the line and ball-playing skills alongside his ability to bend the line. Stephen Crichton moves back to the centres after being largely underutilised and underwhelming at times last year. Izack Tago, meanwhile, is one to watch with high hopes he will be the perfect replacement. Young Tago is already well-built and has NRL experience from the Origin period last year. He impressed on those occasions and although defending in the top grade may be a concern early, patience is needed.

Meanwhile, for Manly, as much as Penrith being without Cleary is a boost it will mean little if it does not win the forward battle. The Panthers still boast one of the best forward packs in the league and the Sea Eagles will need the most out of their big men, who were relatively unheralded and underrated last year. Toafofoa Sipley in particular is one to watch after missing out on the finals side last year. Sipley recent revealed he sat down with coach Des Hasler to understand why he was left out and if anything it sounds like he is ready to prove himself and take his game to another level.

The favourite: Penrith were favourites but the absence of Cleary sees Manly backed in here.

My tip: The Panthers should be lifted by the energy of playing in front of a strong home crowd but Cleary's absence will be telling. Penrith has looked disorganised without its general leading the way at halfback and that is particularly true in the red zone. Manly, on the other hand, is clinical with Trbojevic playing out the back. Sea Eagles by 8.