The Sydney Roosters and Penrith could hardly be in more different places heading into Friday night's NRL finals opener at Panthers Stadium.
Heading into the semis, you need momentum and luck with injuries and Penrith have got both.
They’re a young, inexperienced team and how they handle the pressure of finals footy is the big question mark for some people. I reckon it works the other away because they don’t hold any fear.
Most of those players have been together since they were juniors, coming through the Panthers pathways system. They’ve built those combinations over the years, arriving at this moment.
Then there’s the Roosters, who were humiliated 60-8 against Souths in the final round. They made 200 more tackles than the Rabbitohs. I’ve rarely seen possession stats, particularly for a team of such quality, so one-sided.
Roosters coach Trent Robinson said he was “embarrassed” by the performance. How will the two-time defending premiers respond?
Andrew Johns believes Nathan Cleary is primed to take the Panthers to the preliminary final after they meet the Roosters on Friday night.Credit:Getty Images
How the Roosters can win
For starters, they get their defence back in order.
Their right side of Mitch Aubusson and Matt Ikuvalu was really poor, but they get back Joseph Manu, who I believe is the best centre in the game, and the experienced Brett Morris on that edge. That’s what is needed to stop Penrith’s left-side attack of Billy Kikau and Stephen Crichton.
The big inclusion for the Roosters is Isaac Liu in the middle of the field at lock. Like Victor Radley before he was sidelined for the season with injury, he does a lot of work you don’t see.
Liu starting makes their bench stronger. Angus Crichton can have a real impact when Robinson decides to use him.
For Penrith, one weakness I can identify is the height of their wingers, Brian To’o and Josh Mansour. The Roosters' Daniel Tupou is about 10cm taller than both of them if they kick to the corners.
How the Panthers can win
The Panthers are dangerous all over the park, but the left is their go-to side, playing early to Kikau and Crichton.
Then there’s the unpredictability of five-eighth Jarome Luai. He’s a lot better player than I ever imagined. At the start of the year, I thought Matt Burton should be the starting No.6. I’ve had to eat some humble pie. I got it very wrong.
Luai just plays what’s in front of him and that style of attack is the Roosters’ weakness.
Besides the Storm, no team is better at stopping structured play than the Chooks. You can’t beat them with playing that way because they will hold you out all day.
But, as we saw with Souths, they struggle defensively against ad-lib play.
Cody Walker skinned them with “eyes-up” footy. That’s the most overused phrase in the game right now, but it’s true of Walker who was devastating with fullback Corey Allan sweeping with him on short sides.
The Roosters couldn’t handle that ad-lib, high-tempo style of play and, off the back of fatigue, they were crucified. Penrith will try to do the same.
Player to watch
Api Koroisau’s trickery around the ruck has been very effective for the Panthers, especially when he gets out of dummy half with two steps and gets the defence interested before bringing his forwards onto the ball with subtle no-look passes.
It isolates the first two defenders and takes the markers out of play. That encourages one-on-one tackles, which means quick play-the-balls and offloads, which then bring fullback Dylan Edwards into play.
When Koroisau runs, he often ducks under tackles, especially close to the line.
The loss of captain and hooker Jake Friend is a huge one for the Roosters. Expect Koroisau to target his replacement, Freddy Lussick, trying to wear him out with a lot of tackles.
Penrith will work to the right side of the field in attack with Nathan Cleary getting his two front-rowers to come underneath him. He will dummy to them.
Then the key is his change in speed. It’s what we mean by “tempo running”. When the defence starts moving forward, Cleary will hide the ball to the defensive line by holding it in front of him and turning it from hip to hip.
If Cleary can draw Boyd Cordner out of the line he can put Liam Martin one-on-one with Luke Keary.
The natural reaction of the defenders in front of him is to stop. They can’t see the ball so they half panic. Manly’s Cliffy Lyons was the best at it during his career, changing speed, drawing defenders out of the line.
Cleary is also starting to perfect it. He’ll try to suck Roosters back-rower Boyd Cordner out of the line. If Cordner comes out, it gives him three options.
The first is his big show-and-go. He can dummy and get in behind the back-rower, like he did in the final minute against the Cowboys in round 10 to score.
If Cordner panics and comes in, Cleary can play a short ball to Liam Martin, which gets Martin one-on-one with Luke Keary. Or he can play out the back to Edwards.
The Roosters can stop it by working together, moving forward as a defensive line. Easier said than done.
Friend being out changes everything for me. I had been close to tipping the Roosters but that’s an eight-to-10 point turnaround. Penrith too strong at home.
JOEY’S TIP: Penrith by 4.
FIRST TRYSCORER: Brent Naden.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Nathan Cleary.
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