As the Panthers prepare for finals footy following their decisive victory over Parramatta on Friday night, Penrith coach Ivan Cleary refused to be lulled into underestimating their next opponent, the Rabbitohs, despite Souths losing Latrell Mitchell for the remainder of the season.
Helped by a Brian To’o hat-trick, the Panthers ran away with a 40-6 win on the Gold Coast over an undermanned Eels outfit with a host of stars rested ahead of the finals. Meanwhile Cleary opted to play a full-strength side to build momentum as they prepare for their next assignment – South Sydney.
The Rabbitohs will be without star fullback Mitchell for the rest of the year after his shocking hit on Joseph Manu last week earned him a six-week suspension. Cleary admitted it will be a “different” outlook playing South Sydney with Mitchell sidelined, but said his omission presented other challenges.
“We’ve played Souths a few times over the years, big games too. We know a bit about them and they know a bit about us. They’re [still] an incredibly dangerous team. It’s going to be a great challenge. We know how to beat them but knowing and doing it, is a different thing,” Cleary said following his side’s big win over Parramatta.
“Whenever you lose one of the best players in the game [Mitchell], you can’t necessarily replace them man to man.
“Whoever they bring in will have a different skillset.
“But one man never makes a team. He [Mitchell] wasn’t playing this time last year either and they were still pretty hard to beat.”
The next man up is Blake Taaffe to fill the void left by Mitchell, but South Sydney coach Wayne Bennett told media he will wait to see how the youngster fares against St George Illawarra on Saturday before deciding whether he can keep the No.1 jersey for the finals.
Cleary was encouraged by what he saw from his men on Friday against the Eels.
They were kept in check in the first half but a much-improved second half saw their class shine through, with To’o a standout, bagging his first hat-trick in the NRL on his return from an ankle injury that kept him out of action for five weeks.
“He’s just amazing,” the Panthers coach said of the hat-trick hero.
“He said straight after he had the surgery this time that it felt better than last time. We were hoping he might be able to beat the six-week mark – he ended up doing it a week earlier.
“Not just coming back, but looking like he’d never been out or injured. He’s remarkable, so certainly glad he’s on our team.
“We’ve got a few guys like that, we’ve got players that bring the best out of other people and bring a certain energy. That’s contagious. That’s another reason I wanted to play all the boys together.”
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Cleary boasted about the team’s defensive efforts on the year, and how it put them in good stead to achieve further success.
“I’m definitely happy with how we’re sitting and where we’re positioned for next week,” he said.
“I’m really happy where we are. I’m very proud of the season we’ve put together – the number one defensive team. To achieve an average of 12 points against us a game… to be able to back up from last year… that’s a pretty great achievement.”
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The only sour note on the night for the Panthers was a serious wrist injury to Scott Sorensen which could signal the end of his 2021 season.
“I think he’s dislocated his wrist,” Cleary told media post-game.
“I can’t imagine how painful that might be because he couldn’t put it back it. Obviously hope for the best for him. He’d be doing it a bit hard at the moment.”
The Panthers will meet South Sydney next week in what promises to be a tantilising finals clash, after Penrith ended the Rabbitohs’ season last year in a preliminary final.
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