The Penrith Panthers are looking to break an 18-year premiership duck, and are sitting pretty at the top end of the table.
But the thundering steam train that was Ivan Cleary’s side flew off the rails when it came to losing their best players to the NSW Blues for the first instalment in the 2021 Origin series.
They crashed and burned against Wests Tigers, finding themselves on the wrong side of a 26-6 scoreline in Round 13 at Leichhardt Oval.
Round 14 arrived, with the Panthers suffering another loss, a 19-18 defeat at the hands of the Cronulla Sharks.
Those defeats are the only two the club has suffered this season. Now, with arguably their two most influential players in Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai missing through injury, the Panthers need to prove they’re capable of winning without their two stars.
Scott Sorensen firmly believes his team needs no reminders about just how vital the star halves pairing is, but that they’re also well-equipped to deal with their absence.
The Panthers were walloped by the Tigers in Round 13. Picture: Gregg Porteous / NRL PhotosSource:The Daily Telegraph
“We completely understand they’re absolute brilliant players and a very big focal part of what we do,” Sorensen said.
“But at the end of the day, it is a full team performance and we can’t rely on having those two with everything.
“Yes, OK, they’re out, but we’ll be doing a lot of work and we’re completely comfortable, completely confident and ready to showcase on Sunday.”
James Fisher-Harris, who pledged his future to the Panthers with a new four-year deal last Tuesday, echoed his teammate’s sentiments.
“The boys have got to step up,” Fisher-Harris said.
“Everyone’s got to step up. We can’t just rely on a couple boys in the team.
“There’s 17 of us going out, so everyone’s got to step up and do their role.”
The Panthers take on the Warriors after a bye in Round 17, and Sorensen believes it’s only helped his side in their preparation without Luai and Cleary.
“To be honest, I think it will probably work in our favour,” Sorensen said.
“Having more time to gel and work together and have more camaraderie, get to know each other even more and work on our game.
“Let’s embrace it, move forward and keep going the way we’re going.”
Luai and Cleary have provided plenty of magic for the Panthers and NSW Blues this season. Picture: Ian Hitchcock / Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images
The halves pairing of Matt Burton and Tyrone May is not the only thing the side will have to embrace, either.
Due to the Covid outbreak in NSW, all sides based in the state have relocated to Queensland to continue the NRL season.
Round 18 will resemble somewhat of a mini Magic Round, as Cbus Super Stadium on the Gold Coast plays host to a double header on Friday, with Suncorp Stadium hosting back-to-back clashes on Sunday.
The Panthers kick off the Suncorp feast of footy with their match against the Warriors, but Fisher-Harris believes no matter where the side plays, it will get the two points necessary.
“It’s always good playing at home in front of the fans, but if we were to be down here (in NSW), we wouldn’t have the fans anyway,” said Fisher-Harris.
“I think at least we’ll have fans up there, and hopefully we have fans all around Australia and Queensland as well. We’re just keen to play, to be honest.”
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