Surprising admission ahead of huge NRL clash

Panthers coach Ivan Cleary says his side is “looking forward” to the challenge of playing the Storm this weekend in what looms as the most hotly anticipated game of the regular season.

Undoubtedly the best two sides of 2021, the Panthers and Storm will meet for the second time this season on Saturday night, giving one the chance to break a game clear in first position on the NRL ladder.

Penrith enters the clash without Nathan Cleary, James Fisher-Harris, Isaah Yeo, Apisai Koroisau, Tyrone May and Brian To’o, but coach Cleary insists the club’s injury crisis isn’t on his mind as he prepares his side for the encounter.

“Injuries have come throughout the whole season. Every team gets their go but it’s not so much about worrying about who we haven’t got this week, it’s about worrying about who we have got and just trying to put it together on the night,” he told reporters on Friday.

Led by fullback Dylan Edwards in his first game as club captain, the Panthers are looking forward to the challenge of facing the Storm.

“(The Storm) have been a benchmark team, either at the top of the table or near enough, for 15 years, so it’s no different this week,” Cleary said.

“Any time you play against the Storm it’s a great opportunity in so many ways. You certainly know where you are after that.

“(It’s a) great challenge, something we always look forward to.”

The Storm defeated Penrith in the 2020 Grand Final. Picture: Cameron Spencer / Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

Cleary admits he hopes Origin five-eighth Jarome Luai can improve on last week’s modest performance when he takes the field on Saturday night.

Luai was uncharacteristically quiet against Brisbane in his first game back from injury last Saturday, but Cleary expects the Blues livewire to relish the chance to steer the ship in such a big game.

“Jarome was a little bit quiet last week, he knows that. He’s got more of a responsibility this week with (injured fill-in halfback) Tyrone May missing,” Cleary said.

“His role is now to be leading the team around. He’s done that before so that’s a big role for him tomorrow.

“He’s certainly trained well, so looking forward to seeing him take that on tomorrow.

“He doesn’t shy away from the big games and the big moments and that’s one of the reasons we love him so much.”

A Penrith loss on Saturday night could give the Rabbitohs a chance to draw level with Cleary’s side in second position, but the coach said he was not concerned by the possibility of finishing the season outside the top two.

“The big benefit (of finishing in the top two) is getting a home final in that first week of the finals,” Cleary said.

“There’s still obviously a lot of uncertainty, but looking at the way Sydney’s going, I can’t imagine we’ll be going back there in a hurry, so it may not be.

“Having said all that, you want to be going into the finals in good form.”

Cleary will hope the acquisition of Tevita Pangai Jr. for the remainder of the season will help his side to do just that.

The out-of-favour Bronco arrived at Penrith’s Sunshine Coast bubble on Thursday but is not permitted to begin training with the side until Monday.

He’ll see out the season with Penrith before joining fellow Panthers Matt Burton and Brent Naden in heading to the Bulldogs for 2022. The Penrith triumvirate will play under former Penrith assistant Trent Barrett upon arrival at Belmore.

“(Pangai Jr.) will be available for next week. He’s joined us here so that’s really good, it’s a nice new energy into the camp, so looking forward to getting him into our team,” Cleary said.

“I think he can really add to our team.

“I guess we’ll see over the next few weeks.”

The Panthers joined the league’s other non-Queensland clubs in relocating to the Sunshine State earlier this month. Picture: Lachie MillardSource:News Corp Australia

The coach wasn’t as specific about when fans will see Nathan Cleary and Isaah Yeo back in action.

Penrith has dates with fellow heavyweights the Roosters, Rabbitohs and Eels booked in for the remainder of the regular season, so Panthers fans will hope their co-captains can return to the fray sooner rather than later.

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