Penrith’s home game against Canterbury on Friday looms as a potential banana skin for Ivan Cleary’s Panthers as they aim to continue their impressive premiership defence without their State of Origin stars.
The Panthers are running first and have batted away fellow title contenders Melbourne and North Queensland with ease over the last month. They have lost one game at home since the start of the 2020 season.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have won just two games all season, sit bottom of the ladder and are yet to experience an uplift in form despite the arrival of Mick Potter as interim coach.
But on Friday, Cleary’s side will be playing with one hand tied behind their back.
The Panthers coach will be without son Nathan, Jarome Luai, Isaah Yeo, Brian To’o, Liam Martin and Stephen Crichton, who have all been named in Brad Fittler’s side for next Wednesday’s series-opener in Sydney.
Hooker Api Koroisau returned to Penrith on Wednesday given he is only part of the Blues’ extended squad.
Last year the Panthers’ streak of 27 regular-season games without defeat came to an abrupt end against the Wests Tigers.
Only one player – five-eighth Kurt Falls – will be a debutant.
“We’ll go and watch on Friday,” said Cleary. “It’ll be the same as last year and I’m super stoked for Fallsy, he’s gone the long way round to this point.
“He’s been going really well in the NSW Cup and they are going really well as a team. With Jarome and Nathan being in the (Blues) side it gives him a chance.
“I’m excited to see the guys below get the opportunity, who might not have got it without those guys in the team.”
In a sign of how the fortunes of both clubs have changed, 12 of the 17 listed by Penrith have come through the Panthers development systems or made their NRL debuts for the club.
Canterbury used to be the club who proudly said they were “bred not bought” but it is the Panthers whose success in recent times has been helped by a steady conveyer belt of NRL-ready talent.
“I feel we are much better prepared than last year,” said Nathan Cleary.
“It’s such a cool thing, we have our top-30 squad and we all train together and it feels like we are one big team.
“Those guys who have been doing really well in the NSW Cup get the chance to do it on the big stage now.
“I think I speak for all the boys in saying we’ve got confidence in them to do the job.”
On Thursday the Panthers announced the retention of 20-year-old winger Taylan May on a two-year contract. May has 11 tries in 10 games this year.