Penrith coach Ivan Cleary has implored his side to “play that little bit better” as they attempt to avoid being bundled out of the finals in straight sets.
The Panthers suffered a shock loss to the Rabbitohs last week, and will now have get through the Parramatta Eels and Melbourne Storm to make it back to the grand final.
It’s a result that has put Cleary under enormous pressure, with the Panthers facing the humbling prospect of failing to win a premiership despite putting together two remarkable, history-making seasons on the trot.
The prevailing narrative out of last week’s shock loss was that Cleary was outmanouvred in the press and on the paddock by Wayne Bennett and the fallout has included unflattering comparisons with Brian Smith, who was well-regarded over a long career but had a reputation for coaching teams that were finals flops. He never won a premiership.
Speaking on Wide World of Sports’ Immortal Behaviour, Andrew Johns conceded Cleary was “under all sorts of pressure” but described the Smith comparison as “unwarranted on Brian, and it’s unwarranted on Ivan”.
However, at today’s Panthers press conference, the shadow of Bennett continued to linger over Cleary, who was asked if the slanging match had affected his team.
“No,” Cleary curtly replied, before using three more when asked if he had spoken with referees or the NRL this week about decisions.
“No I haven’t.”
When pressed further, he said any dealings with officials was dependent on the situation, before defending his pre and post-match comments from last week.
“I said what I said, I believe what I said.”
The pressure remains on the Panthers after that shock defeat. Heavily favoured with the bookies, they’re expected to be far too strong for a Parramatta outfit that’s playing with house money.
“Penrith are under all sorts of pressure, Ivan’s under all sorts of pressure,” Johns said.
“This game’s going to be so tight.”
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Johns said Penrith had been consistent all year, and that they weren’t used to this level of pressure.
“An upset wouldn’t surprise me.”
Despite this, the former Knights halfback rejected assertions that Cleary’s side wilted in big moments.
“The argy bargy with Wayne, people are questioning him … there’s been unfair comparisons to Brian Smith about his success in big games which is unwarranted on Brian, and it’s unwarranted on Ivan,” Johns said, but added that the Panthers still had some lessons to learn.
“All that exterior pressure … look at last year, they got beat in the grand final, I don’t think they handled the week of the grand final well.
“[This year] they’ve won all these games in a row but they could go out in straight sets, and if that happens, wow, there’s going to be some questions asked.
“Nothing will happen to Ivan, but he’ll be under some pressure, and people on the board will be asking him for some answers.”
Penrith welcome back several key troops who missed last week’s game, including prop Moses Leota, who re-signed with the club a couple of days ago, and fullback Dylan Edwards.
“I thought Critta [stand-in fullback Stephen Crichton] was one of our best last week … but he’s different, he brings a different skill set to what Dyl does,” Cleary said.
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Cleary praised Edwards’ support play, and said that what contributed to his importance in the team was “a lot of things the outside can’t see”, before again stressing that Crichton had been one of their best players and still had a key role to play.
“We just have to play better as a team – that’s all the individuals,” he said.
“In these types of games, you’ve just got to play that little bit better … everyone’s in the same boat.”