The 2012 season was always going to be somewhat of a rebuilding year for the Panthers with veterans Petero Civoniceva, Trent Waterhouse, Frank Puletua, Shane Elford and Timana Tahu among those leaving at the end of 2011 and a new coaching staff taking over, but nobody could have predicted the seismic shake-up coach Ivan Cleary was about to instigate.
Aside from the controversial dumping of Michael Jennings and Lachlan Coote to NSW Cup, the Panthers also failed to secure the services of point-scoring winger Michael Gordon beyond 2012 while Sandor Earl and Nafe Seluini were released mid-season.
However it is the loss of Lewis that has taken everyone aback and it will be interesting to see how the side responds in the Rivalry Round battle of the cats this weekend.
Already at long odds to come anywhere near a finals berth, the ideal scenario from here for Cleary will be a strong finish to the year to both farewell Lewis in style and set a platform from which to build in 2013.
But that won’t be easy against a Wests Tigers outfit that welcomes back their own captain Robbie Farah this week.
Forced to sit out last Friday night’s loss to the Bulldogs due to concussion suffered in the State of Origin decider, Farah looms as the key man in getting the Tigers’ season back on track following three consecutive losses. Certainly it is no coincidence that the Tigers’ worst form this year has come during periods when Farah has been in and out of the side.
That he is now back for the run home to the finals will no doubt give coach Tim Sheens confidence that his charges can start up another run similar to that which saw them win seven in a row between Rounds 7-14.
The season-ending injury to Lote Tuqiri has seen Sheens shuffle his backline with Tim Moltzen returning to fullback, Beau Ryan moving to the wing and Matt Utai coming into the starting line-up at the expense of Joel Reddy who drops back to the bench.
Farah replaces Tom Humble at hooker, while Adam Blair is out through suspension after failing to have a one-match ban overturned at Wednesday night’s judiciary.
Chris Heighington is on the verge of recording the same amount of games for the Tigers as Keith Barnes did for Balmain (194). Both he and Robbie Farah will record their 100th career victory should they down the Panthers this week.
It’s been a rough year for Penrith, who have been forced to use a total of 29 players so far in 2012 – equal with Brisbane for the most in the NRL. However, they have a few milestones approaching that they will be hoping to celebrate in style, including Brad Tighe’s 100th game for the club this Saturday.
Meanwhile, the departing Lewis is moving up the list of most-capped Panthers. This week’s clash will be his 208th which leaves him just one game behind Brad Izzard and three behind Tony Puletua. However, he will no longer threaten Steve Carter’s all-time record of 242.
Watch Out Wests Tigers: Penrith prop Tim Grant will return to club football full of confidence after two impressive performances for NSW in this year’s Origin series. The Panthers will certainly be looking to him to lead the way up front too: the 24-year-old has averaged 140 metres and 26 tackles per game in 2012.
Danger Sign: Penrith heavily favour their left side in attack, having scored more than twice as many tries on that side of the field as they have on the right (25 to 12). That should come as no surprise given the presence of Michael Jennings – the star centre having overcome a tough start to the year to come away from the State of Origin series as one of the Blues’ best performers.
Watch Out Panthers: Robbie Farah’s return this week spells trouble for Penrith’s centre defence, with the Tigers having produced eight line-breaks from dummy-half in 2012 – the second most of any team in the Telstra Premiership. And it is particularly concerning for the visitors given they have conceded more tries between the posts than any other side with 10.
Danger Sign: Penrith’s kicking game needs plenty of work this week given their struggles in that area in 2012. Of their 140 kicks in play this season, the Panthers have found open space just 61 times with an accuracy percentage of just 43.6. Only South Sydney have found the opposition fullback with greater regularity. Notably, Travis Burns has been easily their best kicker, having found open space 67 per cent of the time but Luke Walsh (47 per cent), Lachlan Coote (37 per cent) and Blake Austin (33 per cent) have all struggled.
Chris Heighington v Luke Lewis: All eyes will be on Lewis this week as he takes the field for the first time since announcing he would be leaving Penrith at the end of the 2012 season. Lewis is a key man for the Panthers. Last start, against Parramatta, he led the way with 187 metres, two line-breaks and a try and his season average is a solid 108 metres and 30 tackles. His opposite number this week, Chris Heighington, may well have to contend with a man on a mission; however the Tigers’ lock is also renowned for his aggressive defence and ability to bend the line.
Where It Will Be Won: Around the rucks. Penrith’s priority must be to limit the influence of Tigers hooker Robbie Farah. The Panthers have struggled to defend through the middle this season but the Tigers rely so heavily on Farah that the visitors will go a long way towards causing the upset if they can plug the leaks this week.
The History: Played 22; Panthers 14, Tigers 8. Penrith boast a tremendous record against the Tigers and have won four of their past six games at Campbelltown. However, they have struggled in recent times with the Tigers winning their past four clashes and scoring a total of 125 points in those games.
The Last Time They Met: The Tigers snapped a five-game losing streak in emphatic fashion and kicked off their seven-match winning streak with a 30-0 thrashing of Penrith at Centrebet Stadium in Round 7. The home side began poorly when winger Sandor Earl spilled a Benji Marshall clearing kick after just four minutes and from the ensuing set Marshall sent Adam Blair crashing over for an early 6-0 lead.
A concussion that forced Robbie Farah from the field soon after slowed the Tigers’ momentum and it took a wonderful chase by Tom Humble on a runaway David Simmons to prevent Penrith leveling the scores. However, the visitors soon found their groove again with Aaron Woods bursting through before offloading to Joel Reddy who put Tim Moltzen away for a 12-0 advantage.
Just minutes later they were over again as Marshall threw another well-timed short ball for Ray Cashmere to score alongside the posts and the match was as good as over.
The Panthers managed to hold on until the break and looked to be hauling themselves back into the match when Blake Austin broke through on the hour, but with the try-line beckoning he inexplicably slipped and was miraculously held up before the line. That was all the invitation the Tigers needed to put the icing on the cake as Tom Humble scored from the next set before Lote Tuqiri sparked a 70-metre effort that was finished by Moltzen.
Eight Tigers players ran for over 100 metres while former Penrith prop Matthew Bell topped the tackle count with 43. Luke Lewis starred for the Panthers with 155 metres and 33 tackles.
Match Officials: Referees – Henry Perenara & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Grant Atkins; Video Referee – Bernard Sutton.
The Way We See It: Even with the Luke Lewis factor, it’s hard to see Penrith winning this one. The Tigers were far from embarrassed in their loss to high-flying Canterbury last week and will be far better with Farah back on board. We predict a one-sided contest. Wests Tigers by eight points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.