With hopes of a minor premiership still alive, Penrith Panthers coach Ivan Cleary has elected to take a full-strength squad into their match up with the Parramatta Eels on Friday night.
While resting players was considered by Cleary, he believes that most of his stars have had enough time off in the back half of the season.
“Since Origin most of our guys have missed games through either being rested or through injuries,” he said at his press conference on Thursday.
Last week was the first time since round 15 that all seven of Cleary’s State of Origin stars played together since round 15 and the lack of cohesion was a major reason Cleary decided to field a full-strength team.
“We feel like the best thing for us at this point in time is to keep going and get our boys together and have another hit out,” he said.
“There was a bit of rust around cohesion and some key guys playing together again so were looking forward to tomorrow’s game to iron out a few creases and get ourselves ready for the finals.
“Our boys like playing footy and they like playing together and we haven’t had a chance to play together with this team for quite some time, last week was the first time since round 14 or 15.”
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Former Broncos prop Tevita Pangai Junior is another star player that Cleary is trying to integrate into his best 17 come finals time.
Cleary is happy with the way Pangai Junior has fitted into the club despite a challenging preparation.
“I think he had played maybe one game in five or six weeks from suspension at the end of his Broncos stint and then he had personal issues that he had to deal with which I don’t think anyone can really understand what toll that can take on you,” he said.
“I’m actually really happy with what he’s done, the first game was just get out there and have a game of footy and play with new teammates, last week was definitely an improvement.
“Obviously scoring a try helps his and everyone else’s confidence and each day at training and around the boys that connection grows a little bit stronger.
“He’s got good footy sense Tevita, he understands the game and is a keen leaner, so tomorrow’s game will be a step in the right direction.”
The Eels will head into Friday night’s clash undermanned as they rest seven players in the lead up to the finals, but Cleary won’t be underestimating them.
“It hasn’t changed anything that were doing,” he said.
“All its really going to do is probably give them more enthusiasm because there are a few guys there that are either making their debut or haven’t played a lot of footy and that’s just such an exciting time for any young player and I’m sure they’ll give a good account of themselves.
“We’re still expecting [tonight’s] game to be really tough, Parramatta play a very physical brand of footy so I’m sure whoever is playing will stand up to that type of football, so were looking forward to be able to compete against those guys, but probably more importantly getting our own little template together and the style of footy we play that works for us the best.”
Even though the Eels may be undermanned Cleary believes that they have played enough finals footy over recent weeks.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate with the draw that we have played the rest of the top four in the last month, so we’ve had some really tough and tight games whilst not at full strength as well.
“So, we definetly feel as though we have played enough semi-final style footy lately.”