Penrith v Parramatta preview

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Penrith Panthers v Parramatta Eels Friday 7:55pm at BlueBet Stadium

With Nathan Cleary set to miss between four to six weeks of game time, this Friday night's clash with Parramatta now shapes as pivotal in the direction Penrith's 2021 campaign heads.

A loss threatens to cast doubts, both internally and externally, over whether the Panthers can manage this tough stanza without their crafty No. 7. Realistically there is no reason Penrith cannot still maintain their fine form without their star halfback.  Sure, he was the runaway Dally M leader and has been at the centre of the team's success but it is not like the other 16 players alongside him aren't capable.

Matt Burton has constantly proven himself capable of stepping up in Cleary's absence.  Scrap his performances against the Tigers and Sharks - he was given little help alongside Tyrone May and was playing in a severely undermanned side lacking potency in attack.  Even if you do draw anything out of those games, look at the way he lifted Penrith with two tries and an assist in a stunning comeback that just fell short against Cronulla.  This is Burton's biggest challenge yet but with all the attacking weapons around him there won't be lofty expectations for him to dominate straight away.

It means more pressure is on Jarome Luai and Apisai Koroisau to lift in Cleary's absence.  The Panthers will dearly miss his direction in general play while he also dictates the team's tempo in attack.  Cleary is joined by Dylan Edwards on the sidelines, seeing Charlie Staines given a chance to impress at fullback.  Brent Naden, meanwhile, earns an NRL recall while the rest of the Origin contingent backs up outside of Cleary. 

The Panthers scored a much-needed last-start win against the Roosters but face another tough opponent this week in an Eels outfit gunning for four-straight victories. 

Coach Brad Arthur has proven himself willing to make bold selection calls, dropping winger Blake Ferguson even when Maika Sivo was suspended.  The decision to shift Waqa Blake to a new edge has also proved a masterstroke with the former Panther looking confident and more involved. 

With Cleary out of contention for Origin III, all eyes will now be on Mitchell Moses who is in the frame for his Blues debut.  Moses has previously been criticised for failing to stand up in the big moments and crumbling under pressure. Friday night's meeting with the Panthers proves as the perfect chance for the heavily-scrutinised halfback to quash those suggestions.

The Eels made a slow start against the Bulldogs in their last start but can't afford to make the same mistake against Penrith.  Give the Panthers a 12-0 head start and they will ruthlessly turn that into 40. 

The Eels will be without Reed Mahoney (shoulder) again but welcome back Sivo (suspension) while Oregon Kaufusi and Bryce Cartwright join the bench. 

Last meeting: Round 18 2020 - Panthers 20 Eels 2

Who to watch: Viliame Kikau has had an underwhelming 2021 and now he is under pressure to prove he is deserving of a starting spot ahead of Liam Martin. While Penrith has been criticised at times for not using Kikau properly, the destructive second rower is not exempt of blame. Kikau has been guilty of tiring too easily in the new-look, fast-paced NRL and has proven a liability at times in defence. He has also not always asserted himself like a man of his size should. Cleary has proven a mastermind at unleashing the best of Kikau, using him as a decoy and then on the next set getting him running against the grain. Without Cleary though Kikau will also need to play a key role in maximising his chances. 

He may be coming off the bench but against his former club Bryce Cartwright shapes as a genuine game-breaker for Parramatta. Cartwright's late offloads and ball-playing ability have threatened to make him a cut-price attacking weapon in the right team. Too often though he has placed excessive emphasis on the fancy stuff. Coach Arthur though has Cartwright running hard and direct first and passing second. It has not always paid off but there have been enough signs to suggest Cartwright is starting to turn a corner and he could be the man to break Penrith's relentless defence late if the scores are close. 

The favourite: Penrith were strong favourites but the Cleary news has seen the Eels firm.

My tip: There are serious question marks over the Panthers this week without Cleary, which makes it only more important that they silence the doubters and prove they can get the job done without their main man. Parramatta has looked vulnerable even in victory in the past few weeks and must start fast or risk falling away. The clash of two monster forward packs shapes as the decisive factor here. Penrith by 4.

1. Charlie Staines 2. Brent Naden 3. Stephen Crichton 4. Tyrone May 5. Brian To'o 6. Matt Burton 7. Jarome Luai 8. Moses Leota 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Kurt Capewell 13. Isaah Yeo 14. Mitch Kenny 15. Scott Sorensen 16. Spencer Leniu 17. Liam Martin 18. Izack Tago

1. Clinton Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Tom Opacic 4. Waqa Blake 5. Haze Dunster 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Joey Lussick 10. Junior Paulo 11. Isaiah Papali'i 12. Ryan Matterson 13. Nathan Brown 14. Marata Niukore 15. Shaun Lane 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Bryce Cartwright 19. Will Smith

Referees: Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials: Todd Smith, Phil Henderson; Video Referees: Henry Perenara;

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