Cleary, Kikau key as struggling Panthers aim to get back on track

Encourage their forwards to offload more, with less emphasis on set plays. They’re constantly setting up for this big play that doesn’t seem to come. They’re sending guys to the line with the next big play in mind; with what comes after the quick play-the-ball instead of playing every play and pushing forward.

I can see Cleary now

Penrith feature the NSW halves from last year’s State of Origin series win over Queensland – but neither of them are assured selection for game one at Suncorp Stadium.

Halfback Nathan Cleary, however, is in a better position than veteran five-eighth James Maloney, whose defence has again been questionable. He’s missed the most tackles — 28 in five matches — in the competition so far. I understand he had an operation on his neck in the off-season and that might be affecting his confidence. Expect the Sharks — through Chad Townsend and Josh Morris — to send a lot of traffic at him.

Regardless, I still think Nathan has to be the dominant ballplayer in this football team. I don’t know the dynamics of the team but he needs to be the dominant voice. He needs to impose himself.


Johnson the key for Sharks

You always know what you’re going to get with the Sharks, even when they have been hammered by injuries.

Their forwards are honest and hard-working, but their most important player tonight is five-eighth Shaun Johnson, who joined them from the Warriors in the off-season. He provides a lot of flair, as we’ve seen over the years. He’s forming a nice combination with backrower Briton Nikora.

I also like their new young winger Bronson Xerri. He, like the rest of the side, had some really big chances last week against the Roosters but dropped too much ball.

The Sharks also have to work out how they get Blayke Brailey on the field earlier. He offers a lot out of dummy half. When he comes on, he bobs up and just seems to score a try. He’s one of those players who puts himself in the right position.

I think the Panthers will win in an upset. It’s an important one for them. In the next two months, there are a lot of winnable games for them. If they can find a way to scrape a win out, this match could springboard them and give them a run at the next two months.

Player to watch

Nothing frustrates me more about the modern game than centres not getting enough ball. Especially centres with the ability of Penrith’s Waqa Blake. He’s one of the best athletes in the comp but doesn’t see the ball anywhere near as much as he should.

Penrith don’t need to dress it up. The way to use him is around halfway or coming out of trouble. Go to the left-side first. That opens up the field. Transfer the ball wide and transfer it early: long passes from Cleary to Maloney and then hit Blake. Just use him up. He’s got footwork, he’s so strong. Make the most of it.

At worst, he takes it 30 metres and gets a quick play-the-ball.

Joey’s playbook

Viliame Kikau on the left-side is the X-factor for Penrith. He will line-up on Shaun Johnson, running at him with the ball in two hands. That will put Shaun back on his heels.

He’s got that left-foot step. He’ll beat Johnson but the inside defensive support of Briton Nikora will come and tackle him. When he gets to that point of contact, he’ll use his right-hand fend on Nikora but then use his left hand to offload — around the corner, underneath, whatever because he’s so talented — to fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, who will be on the inside of Nikora.

Joey’s notebook.

They can use Kikau in an attacking area because of his strike, although I would also be using him in yardage, where you can use him to get at Johnson, get a quick play-the-ball and then move the ball laterally to Blake.

It’s a big test for Johnson. Last week, against the Roosters, he had some poor defensive misses. He missed Boyd Cordner on the line and I’m sure Kikau saw that and started licking his lips.

Joey’s tip: Penrith by 4
First tryscorer: Viliame Kikau

Andrew Johns is an Immortal, a Newcastle great and a commentator for Channel Nine

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