How Demetriou plans to break Panthers’ home streak

featured, League, NRL 2022, Penrith Panthers, South Sydney Rabbitohs

A trip to the foot of the mountains is just about the biggest ask in rugby league at the moment, but coach Jason Demetriou believes Souths can break the Panthers’ ridiculous 20-game unbeaten streak at BlueBet Stadium in Friday night’s blockbuster Grand Final rematch if they follow last week’s blueprint.

The Bunnies travel west to face a side that hasn’t lost at Penrith since a 30-18 defeat to Canberra in July 2019 and will welcome back star halfback Nathan Cleary for his first appearance of the year.

Demetriou said he was preparing his team to face the best version of the Panthers – and the best version of Nathan Cleary – on Friday night. The Rabbitohs are full of confidence after getting their 2022 campaign on track with a thumping win over the Roosters last week.

“He has got himself in a position where he’s ready to go and he’s given himself that extra time on the training field to get back,” said the coach after their captain’s run at Redfern Oval.

“Match fitness is always going to take a few weeks but he’s a pretty fit bloke.

“I expect the Panthers to be the best they’ve been this week. Cleary’s coming back for a reason in this game and we know they’ll be ready for us when we get there.

“They put you in some tough areas, they’re ruthless with their line speed and defence and they capitalise on field position. They’re very good at that.”

Panthers coach Ivan Cleary was glad to welcome him son back to the team and was expecting him to hit the ground running.

“It’s good to have him back,” he said. “He’s very detailed in how he does stuff and he’s done a lot of reps. He’s mostly been running with our second team against us.

“We’re confident Nat can play and we’ve held him back more than anything. It’s his first game in a long time so he’ll be trying to find his groove but we’re confident he’ll be fine.”

Even though it is only Demetriou’s fourth match in charge of the Bunnies, he was member of the backroom staff under Wayne Bennett in the defeated Grand Final effort last year.

He quashed any ideas of a revenge mission, however, and said it was just as important to consider his team’s form this time around as it was to think about the last time the Panthers and Bunnies met.

“I’m not somebody who looks back too much,” he said. “Obviously we learned some lessons in terms of how we combat what Penrith do to us and to every team, but for us it’s about building off last week (when Souths got their first win of the year over the Roosters).

“We did that well, and we’re going to have to be even better this week.

“I felt we had some defensive lapses last week, particularly for their last try, and we can’t do that this week because Penrith are ruthless in how they come at you.

“There’s always things in any game where you can improve. It’s about recognising what we did well last week, being happy with that, and then upping the levels this week.”

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 08: Rabbitohs head coach Jason Demetriou looks on during a South Sydney Rabbitohs NRL Training Session at Redfern Oval on March 08, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
Jason Demetriou. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The big change in the Rabbits’ ranks compared to 2021 is in the halfback position, with club legend Adam Reynolds gone and rookie playmaker Lachlan Ilias beginning to find his feet in first grade.

Ilias turned in his best performance in the famous cardinal and myrtle last week in the victory over the Roosters, and Demetriou said that it was a case of the team creating the conditions for him to thrive.

“He’s owning his role, and that’s what we need him to do,” he said. “The other thing is that we’ve held the ball. We’ve done that because our defence went up a notch and we got some confidence on the back of scoring points.

“No matter how good your season was the year before, you’ve got to build your game and we weren’t willing to do that early.

“We thought that it could just flow like it did at the back end of last season. We built our game well last week and we’ll have to do that again.”

Latrell Mitchell seemed to be nursing a knee complaint towards the end of training, but the coach said it was precautionary and would not impair his star fullback. He backed Mitchell to keep up his end of the defensive bargain and then inject himself into the game in attack.

“Like with Lachlan, it’s about Latrell doing his job,” Demetriou said. “He’s got a job to do and if he does that, he’s in the game and his natural talent will come to the fore.

“Latrell’s been good with his defensive resolve and he’s been outstanding in the two games that he’s played in making sure that our defence is where it needs to be.”

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