The Penrith Panthers may be in action in the NRL grand final later on Sunday night but first their depth will was on full display in the State Championship.
Having won the NSW Cup decider last week, Penrith earned the right to face Queensland side Norths Devils and the Panthers put on a show early.
With Apisai Koroisau on the way to the Tigers next season, many are predicting the Panthers may struggle to produce the same heights but back-up hooker Soni Luke has something to say about that.
Follow all the action from the build-up to the 2022 NRL decider below.
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Luke scored a try and set up another early as the Panthers ran out to a 18-0 lead at halftime.
He first put in a deft kick for J’Maine Hopgood, who is off to Parramatta next year, before going himself soon after to score.
Silky ball-playing from Matt Eisenhuth then put Eddie Blacker over for Penrith’s third of the game.
‘I DON’T LIKE IT’: PANTHERS LEGEND NOT A FAN OF API SWITCH
Panthers premiership hero Craig Gower believes Ivan Cleary cannot afford to bench Apisai Koroisau as his former side prepares for Sunday’s grand final against Parramatta.
Cleary started utility Mitch Kenny at hooker last week, with South Sydney skipping out to an early lead before the scheming Koroisau helped navigate the Panthers to a comeback victory.
Speaking on Triple M’s ‘Saturday Scrum’, The Daily Telegraph’s David Riccio said Penrith could pull the late switch again in a bid to negate a tactic that has previously been used to try tire the crafty Koroisau.
“Over the past couple of weeks we’ve seen Ivan Cleary make the subtle change to his starting line-up, which includes Mitch Kenny in his starting line-up and leaving Apisai Koroisau to provide impact and come off the bench,” Riccio said.
“A lot of fans are confused by this given the standard in the game of Koroisau. The Panthers notice a lot of teams are starting to spot Koroisau up and by that I mean send a lot of their big men at Koroisau to make him make those tackles early in the game.
“Mitch Kenny is highly-regarded as one of the best defensive dummy-halves, certainly not as creative as Koroisau, but to take the sting out of the first 20 minutes. It will be interesting to see if Ivan goes down that path again.”
Gower though is not a fan of the move, arguing it makes it easier for opposition teams to rush up on Nathan Cleary as the Penrith halfback looks to gain the advantage early with his kicking game.
“I don’t like it on the reason of last week we lacked a bit of direction out there and it also gives the defence more time to get to Nathan and more of the attacking players,” Gower said.
“Api is just so decieving out there, you don’t know what he is going to do. That just adds the element to the defensive line of, ‘We’ve got to wait and sit’ instead of going and rushing up to Nathan because there’s not enough deception at that position.
“Hopefully they go with Api. He’s a State of Origin player and adds so much to their attack and it gives Nathan and Luai so much time.”
Meanwhile, Parramatta is reportedly considering a big selection call of its own, starting Nathan Brown and sending Junior Paulo back to the bench.
It is a tactical decision that has the approval of Dragons forward Aaron Woods.
“I don’t mind (Brown starting) because you’re fighting fire with fire,” Woods said on Triple M’s ‘Saturday Scrum’.
“I actually don’t mind Marata Niukore starting, I’d probably put Paulo back to the bench and start Brown. We did that with Origin, you’ve got a massive body on the bench. If Brown can hold his own against Fisher-Harris and Leota, then Paulo would come on when those two are off.
“It’s a big thinking plan for Parramatta.”
Premiership-winning five-eighth Johnathan Thurston, meanwhile, called the decision to include Brown in the side a “masterstroke” from Brad Arthur.
“He’s got that aggressive mindset,” Thurston said.
“He loves the contact. He loves the aggression and that’s what they need because if the Panthers forward pack starts to get on a roll, that’s when Cleary and Luai come into their own and they’ll just dominate from there.”
MANLY STAR OPENS UP ON ‘WHAT-IF’ MOMENT AHEAD OF GF
Speaking of Parramatta’s forward pack, Martin Taupau could have been a welcome addition for the Eels.
Taupau looked set to make the switch to the Eels before the August 1 deadline but had his request to join Parramatta denied twice by Manly coach Des Hasler.
Speaking to The Sun-Herald, Taupau opened up for the first time about his frustrations over the missed opportunity.
“It’s always the what-if, but it is sad because it could have been a possibility I was playing tomorrow night,” Taupau said.
“It was only a reality for a small amount of time, but that window of opportunity was closed by Manly.
“I could have asked for a release via text message or phone call, but that’s not who I am. I went on two occasions to ask Des for a release. Unfortunately, it wasn’t granted.
“Des had his reasons. Obviously you get frustrated when people don’t meet you where you’re at with your journey.
“It was more frustrating with how it unravelled. I went to ask the club around the same time there was the rainbow jersey [issue], then I had a family member die suddenly and I had to go to Melbourne [for the funeral].
“But Des and I are big believers in things happening for a reason. In my mind I was ready for anything. Parramatta were due to play against Manly, and I was prepared to wear the blue and gold jersey. It’s my job.”
Eels complete captain’s run on home soil | 04:06
FULL GAME PREVIEW:
After a gruelling NRL season the minor premiers Penrith Panthers take on arch rivals the Parramatta Eels in the big dance for a shot at the ultimate prize.
The Panthers have been the benchmark all season, but the Eels have beaten them twice and are peaking at the right time of year.
The game pits arguably its best player in Nathan Cleary up against Eels counterpart Mitchell Moses in a mouth-watering battle of the star playmakers.
Eels skipper Clint Gutherson will go head-to-head with brilliant Panthers No.1 Dylan Edwards in a clash of the workhorses at the back.
The battle between Panthers rake Koroisau and Eels hooker Reed Mahoney will have a massive impact on the result.
As will the battle between livewire five-eighths Jarome Luai and Dylan Brown, who possess the brilliance to produce a match winning moment on their own.
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However, the game will ultimately be decided by an epic battle of the forward packs and their ability to set the tone for their brilliant backs.
The Eels’ twin towers of Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Paulo come up against Panthers enforcers James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota in the front row.
In the back row Viliame Kikau and Liam Martin will lead the Panthers’ charge up against Eels counterparts Shaun Lane and Isaiah Papali’i.
Panthers skipper Isaah Yeo will be crucial to his side’s chances of going back-to-back and will come up against Ryan Matterson and Brown off the bench.
The Eels lead the season battles 2-1, but the Panthers have the experience of the last two grand finals to lean on against the inexperienced Parramatta side when it comes to deciders.
However, the form guide looks set to go out the window as the two sides go head-to-head in what promises to be an epic battle of the west to crown the 2022 NRL champions.
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Panthers: 1. Dylan Edwards 2. Charlie Staines 3. Izack Tago 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Brian To’o 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Moses Leota 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Liam Martin 13. Isaah Yeo 14. Mitch Kenny 15. Scott Sorensen 16. Spencer Leniu 17. Jaeman Salmon 18. Sean O’Sullivan 19. Matt Eisenhuth
Players Cut:20. J’maine Hopgood 21. Sunia Turuva 22. Chris Smith
Eels: 1. Clinton Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Will Penisini 4. Bailey Simonsson 5. Waqa Blake 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Isaiah Papali’i 13. Ryan Matterson 14. Nathan Brown 15. Jakob Arthur 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Marata Niukore 18. Bryce Cartwright 19. Makahesi Makatoa
Players Cut: 20. Tom Opacic 21. Ofahiki Ogden 22. Ky Rodwell
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