Penrith coach Matthew Elliott has challenged his brigade of young stars to stand up and be counted this weekend as the race for the top eight heats up in what has already been dubbed the ‘round of the decade’.<br><br>A total of eight clubs are fighting it out for the bottom four finals spots heading into Round 24 with just three points separating fifth-placed Wests Tigers from 12th-placed South Sydney.<br><br>No side typifies the importance every game now holds more than Penrith, who dropped from fifth to 10th following last Sunday’s 58-24 capitulation to Brisbane.<br><br>Elliott admitted today that his brigade of NRL rookies were starting to struggle with the length of the season but said there was no better time than against the Rabbitohs tomorrow night for them to make amends.<br><br>“I think it’s fair to say that from the North Queensland game (Round 20) our form and our resilience isn’t what it needs to be,” he said.<br><br>“The last three games haven’t been what we would like to see.<br><br>“We have integrated some new players back into the team and for young players it is around about this time of the season that things start to get challenging.<br><br>“It is a learning curve for them – but that is a good thing.<br><br>“The great thing about our sport is that there is always another opportunity waiting around the corner and what they need to do now is take the opportunity that is presented to them this weekend.”<br><br>Despite currently sitting right in the middle of the log jam in 10th spot, Elliott rejected suggestions that it was make-or-break for the Panthers this weekend although he admitted momentum would play a big role come finals time.<br><br>“We see it every year when a side gets on a roll at the right time of the season,” he said.<br><br>“But I wouldn’t say it is make-or-break. It’s too hard to say that – and we’re not putting that pressure on ourselves.<br><br>“We will certainly feel a lot better if we win but we just want to go out and play the type of football that we are capable of.”<br><br>Penrith’s chances will no doubt hinge on whether they are able to shrug off the effects of their horrendous second-half effort against Brisbane last Sunday. Leading 24-18 at half-time the Panthers fell apart after the break – conceding a whopping 40 points to go down 58-24.<br><br>“There were opportunities in the second half for us to do some good things but obviously our focus and our effort wasn’t what it needed to be,” he said.<br><br>“It’s not something that has been a long-term issue for us so we’re probably better off focusing on the other 22 or so games where we put the effort in.<br><br>“I can’t say that we’re over the moon about what happened but we address every game the same.<br><br>“We were in on Monday, we had a look at it, we all put our hand up about what we need to get better at and we moved on.”<br><br>Elliott said he was hopeful that the club’s current predicament might shock them back into form.<br><br>“I would like to be four or six points better off in the competition and at times we’ve demonstrated that we’re capable of that… but we’re not,” he said.<br><br>“We’re in a tight spot but instead of leading the pack we’re doing the chasing now so maybe that will give us a different feel.”<br><br>It has been a difficult month for the Panthers, who were also rocked last week by the news that exciting young winger Junior Tia Kilifi had been snapped up by the Bulldogs for next season.<br><br>In an unfortunate twist of fate, the shock retirement of prop Adam Woolnough yesterday with a year left to run on his contract opens up the funds that would have allowed the club to retain the 21-year-old.<br><br>“It’s a real loss for us and it’s funny how things time out,” Elliott said. “If he was looking to sign right now we would be in a better position to retain him.<br><br>“We made him an offer but the Bulldogs made him a better one.<br><br>“I’m happy for the kid but I don’t like losing players – unfortunately you don’t always have a say in that.”<br><br><b>Late News</b><br><br>• Star Parramatta lock Feleti Mateo is expected to make his highly anticipated return from injury in tonight’s blockbuster against Wests Tigers;<br>• Raiders prop Tom Learoyd-Lahrs has been ruled out of tomorrow’s clash with he Warriors with a hamstring injury;<br>• Former Bronco Neville Costigan is out of the Dragons side for tonight’s clash with his old club through injury, while Brisbane has lost Alex Glenn.
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