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COACH V COACH: New Penrith mentor Ivan Cleary isn’t one to dwell on statistics, but he admits he has good reason to expect a torrid tussle against Des Hasler’s Bulldogs on Saturday night. Hasler, of course, was coach of the Manly side that defeated Cleary’s Warriors in last year’s grand final and the head-to-head stats don’t make pretty reading ahead of their first clash in new colours: Hasler has prevailed in nine of the 11 coaching clashes between the two, as well as five of six encounters during their playing days. All up, Hasler leads Cleary 14-3 when their playing and coaching records are combined.

When pointed out that he hadn’t fared too well against his old sparring partner, Cleary responded: “No I haven’t – but then a fair few people can say that about playing against Manly. They’ve absolutely been one of the benchmark teams of the past five years. At the end of the day coaches don’t tackle one another, so we’ll see what happens.

“Des’s Manly sides have always been ultra-competitive and I expect the ’Dogs to be that this week. But early in the season in particular the focus is more on ourselves and making sure we deliver because if we can’t deliver a decent performance then we’ll be up against it.”

Cleary laughed at the irony of he and Hasler going head to head in their first NRL game with their new clubs after facing off in last year’s decider.

“I don’t know the stats about it but it couldn’t have happened too often,” he said. “I guess it’s the same thing for both of us – we’re both on new journeys. But from my point of view it’s my first game at a new club and I’m really looking forward to getting it under way. I’ve really enjoyed the last few months and I guess the litmus test starts this week.”

In another example of life coming full circle, it is almost 20 years since Cleary made his playing debut in a Manly side that also boasted one D. Hasler in the game program, the Sea Eagles playing out a draw with Western Suburbs at Brookvale Oval on July 4, 1992. 

‘CHERRY’ RIPE: Roosters insiders are confident boom youngster Anthony Cherrington is finally over the knee problems that have sidelined him for the past two seasons. Cherrington has had reconstructions on both knees since first tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in early 2010. There were fears that he would be forced into an early retirement after re-injuring his left knee during the current pre-season, however the Roosters insist he has responded well to his latest surgery and are expecting him to return to the field as early as Round 4.

“He tried to rush through his recovery a bit last year and the problem was that the graft (taken from Cherrington’s hamstring) wasn’t strong enough for his size,” one official told us. “This time they’ve done exactly what they did with his right knee, so both knees will be much stronger now.”

Cherrington has 19 NRL games to his name – but has played just five since the start of 2009 when a foot injury ended his year early.

HOT TODDY: All eyes will be on Todd Carney when he makes his first NRL appearance for new club Cronulla against Wests Tigers on Sunday – and with good reason. Carney boasts a phenomenal record against the Tigers, having won four of his past five clashes with Tim Sheens’ men and having recorded his most career line-breaks (10), try assists (10) and tackle-breaks (45) against them. Whether or not that will count for much this time around is anyone’s guess although former NSW and Australian halfback and 2012 expert Greg Alexander suggests the mind can play strange games at times.

“I know that when I was playing, there were some teams I just always seemed to play well against,” he said. “I think that subconsciously you think to yourself ‘I’ve torn these blokes to shreds before, I can do it again’. So the same might go for Todd when he plays the Tigers. He probably plays with a lot of confidence against them.”

ARMIT & DANGEROUS: Chris Armit joked to his Bulldogs team-mates last year that he would probably end up facing them in his first game for new club Penrith this season. Not only has that premonition proved true, it happens to coincide with his 150th first grade game. After 15 games for Parramatta and another 134 with the Bulldogs since debuting back in 2003, Armit arrives at Penrith looking to reignite a career he felt was starting to stall in the blue and white.

“I actually rang Phil Gould myself last year looking for an opportunity,” Armit revealed to this week. “There were a few things happening at the Panthers at the time that I thought would be good to be a part of. There was a slight chance I might have stayed at the Bulldogs but as they say a change is as good as a holiday. It was probably a move I needed to make. I felt like I needed a fresh start – a kick-start.”

Armit said he never expected to reach the 150 milestone.“It certainly makes you think about your career,” he said. “It could have been a career that never happened but I’m grateful for everything that I’ve got out of rugby league. I’m not the type of player that likes the limelight. I like to maybe fly under the radar a bit and just enjoy the casual interest of my family and friends but it’s a nice achievement.”

BUCK UP: Word from the Broncos’ camp is that Justin Hodges has never looked better heading into the opening round of an NRL season. The veteran centre’s career has been every bit the rollercoaster ride – mostly due to a series of niggling injuries he has never quite seemed able to shake – but the club’s coaching staff believe he is now in the best nick they’ve ever seen him ahead of tonight’s trip to Parramatta.

Hodges has completed his first full off-season since returning to Brisbane from the Roosters in 2005 and is reportedly keen to take on a more significant leadership role in 2012. 

SIXES, NOT SEVENS: Much was made of Kurt Gidley’s move to the No.6 jersey this season following the arrival of fullback Darius Boyd, but the Newcastle skipper is certainly no stranger to the role. Gidley had played 50 games at five-eighth for the Knights before last night’s season opening loss to the Dragons, notching 28 try assists, 22 line-break assists, 16 tries and 151 points. Newcastle won 24 and lost 26 of those games.

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