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When Queensland’s Origin celebrations died down and Panthers skipper Petero Civoniceva returned to Penrith with his right foot in a moon boot, with the rest of his season in doubt, an army of critics with red pens were poised to rub out Penrith’s finals hopes.<br><br>The unyielding prop finally succumbed to toe surgery a fortnight later – and immediately the critics put the line through the Mountain Men with the suggestion they start planning for 2010. What they hadn’t counted on, though, was a renewed effort from arguably the NRL’s most no-frills forward pack – led by a bloke who may well be considered “Mr Invisible” to those who don’t live at the foot of the mountains.<br><br>Meet Matt Bell: the hard-working, mistake-free footballer who has taken over Petero’s sizeable number 10 jersey and claims to have never missed a training session in his four seasons at Penrith.<br><br>“I haven’t had one injury since I’ve come down, it’s been good for training too because I haven’t missed a session through injury… I’ve been sick, but no injuries, touch wood!” Bell says.<br><br>Most players are keen to downplay good injury runs, for fear of ruining them, but Penrith coach Matt Elliott supported Bell’s good fortune.<br><br>“I can confirm (he hasn’t missed a training session) as being the truth as well,” he deadpans. “There couldn’t possibly be a lower-maintenance player as far as a coach is concerned.<br><br>“He trains well and he’s a really committed player… I’ve got nothing but good things to say for him.<br><br>“People outside the club might not take notice of him, but his team-mates notice him, and as far as props go, that’s probably the most crucial thing. And they are the ones that he cares about.”<br><br>Despite overseeing the progression of up-and-comers Lachlan Coote, Jarrod Sammut, Wade Graham and Michael Jennings, Elliott has no hesitation in naming Bell the most improved player at the club this season.<br><br>“He hasn’t got a real long history in league, but it’s just his willingness to learn which has him succeeding,” Elliott adds.<br><br>“It’s a weird thing to say but as a 28-year-old I actually see him as our most improved player this season.<br><br>“He’s definitely in the best condition he’s been in as well. He’s just been invaluable to us.”<br><br>The 190cm enforcer has only recently inked a new deal that will keep him at the club for a further two years. He’s also expecting his first child in the next fortnight, but first and foremost at the front of his mind is how to lift Penrith’s forward pack in the wake of Civoniceva’s shattering injury.<br><br>“We don’t really listen to what people from outside the club think,” Bell tells Big League.<br><br>“What people outside the club think is really different to what players and the coaching staff thinks; we’re very confident in what we can do this year.<br><br>“Losing Petero was initially a bit of a kick in the guts, because we didn’t really know about it at first so it came as a bit of a shock.<br><br>“But over the last couple of weeks we’ve really got our confidence back, so we know we can do it without him now.”<br><br>Over the course of the season Bell has averaged 70 metres and 20 tackles a game, but since Civoniceva’s injury, the Queensland product has upped his numbers to nearly 90 metres a game while still peeling off his 20 tackles.<br><br>“I guess we do all have to lift a bit without Petero,” Bell says. “And I think we’ve done that pretty well actually, sharing the workload around the forwards.<br><br>“We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing, nothing is changing from here on in, so we’ve all got to do the same job. We know you can’t replace Petero but we can all do our best and hopefully everything will fall into place from there.<br><br>“Personally, I love wearing the starting jersey, but it’s not a one-person job when it comes to taking over Petero’s workload.<br><br>“Usually we have the four front-rowers in the team and we all do the same sort of job, it’s really a partnership between the four of us rather than the two starting blokes. But it’s just unreal.<br><br>“I just like starting… it gets me into the game. It’s a good opportunity for me to improve my game and go forward.”
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