Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent, NRL.com
Panthers playmaker Jamie Soward has declared he is the fittest he has been in years as he prepares to help the competition leaders overcome a tricky six-week period without skipper Peter Wallace.
The club confirmed on Monday that their chief orchestrator will be out for at least six weeks after suffering a medial ligament injury in Penrith's 26-10 victory over the Wests Tigers last Sunday.
Soward showed no ill-effects of an ankle injury he picked up against the Warriors a fortnight ago, and said on Tuesday that he is at peak fitness.
"Obviously the ankle in Auckland was a bit of a bother. Everything came back really well. For me fitness-wise, I'm probably in the best shape I've been in a couple of years and that's a credit to the staff behind the scenes," he said.
"Sometimes those guys in the background don't get enough praise, but I'd like to think we're all in pretty good shape. We've got a pretty important month without our captain now and we've got to make sure we're on the ball and still winning games."
After filling in at pivot against the Tigers, ball-playing back-rower Tyrone Peachey has been named by coach Ivan Cleary at five-eighth, pushing Soward to halfback for Monday's home clash against Brisbane. But the former Dragon said he didn’t expect his role will change.
"Tyrone's a very talented player. You saw on the weekend he slotted in fine and we didn't really miss a beat too much. He can pretty much do anything he wants," Soward, 29, said.
"[I'll] probably have to call a few more sets and [have] a bit more responsibility when we do have the ball going in attacking sets. But other than that, we've got a team that across the board, everyone knows their roles and everyone can slot in at roles."
Soward could also be handed captaincy duties after taking over from Wallace on Sunday. The club didn't officially name a skipper on Tuesday, but the former NSW pivot said he'd be honoured to do the job.
"I think I was the oldest bloke at halftime because Kitey was on the bench, so I ran to the front like a little school kid and got myself up there. I was looking to try and get into the refs and talk but just couldn't get a chance. It was just one of those things, someone had to run out first," Soward joked.
"[But] of course, it'd be a huge honour. Any time you get the chance to lead any kind of team is a huge honour. But like I said, on the weekend it was a case of, you're the oldest, get up the front. So I had to do it.
"It would be a huge honour, but we've got a lot of leaders in our group that can step up and do a capable job."