CLEARY BILL OF HEALTH… Michael Gordon shocked Penrith management earlier this season when he knocked back the club’s contract offers to instead sign a three-year deal with Cronulla, but the star fullback was one of the first to openly applaud the decisions taken by coach Ivan Cleary in 2012, including his being overlooked for his preferred fullback role, when contacted by NRL.com this week.
Rather than fuel repeated speculation of discontent amongst some members of the senior playing group, Gordon said there were no hard feelings as he prepares for his final few games with the Panthers. He believes the club is headed in the right direction under Cleary’s rule.
“A hundred per cent,” Gordon said when asked whether Cleary was on the right track. “Even the whole vibe – even though it’s been a tough year, everything seems like it’s definitely heading in the right direction. The club is going to be in a really strong position over the next few years.
“Whenever you get a new coach there always seems to be some sort of cleanout, so to speak, with players coming and going – but I think we’re all professional enough to know that’s just what happens these days. The tough part for me has been not being out on the field helping them out.”
Gordon has been vocal in recent seasons about his desire to make the fullback spot his own although two injury-plagued seasons have robbed him of the chance to battle it out with Lachlan Coote for the No.1 jersey. Ironically, he faces a similar battle with Nathan Gardner next season although he insists that proving himself at the back isn’t his motivation for the remainder of 2012.
“It’s hard… because I’ve missed the whole season, my goal is just to give something back to the club – to finish well and play well for the last five games. I want to remember my time at Penrith in the best way possible,” he said.
“I haven’t even thought about next year. My focus has just been getting back on the field. Once the fulltime siren sounds in the last round, then I’ll worry about next year but I’m just really focused on the Panthers and playing well for them for the rest of the year.”
FELETI v SHARKS… Last week it was Manly’s representative back row of Anthony Watmough, Glenn Stewart and Tony Williams, this week it’s Paul Gallen, Jeremy Smith and Anthony Tupou – but Warriors forward Feleti Mateo insists that knocking over one of the NRL’s benchmark packs tomorrow night would put his side right back on track for another September charge.
“We’re confident that we can get there but we know what we’re up against this week,” Mateo said.
“They’ve got Paul Gallen back who is a massive player for them and Jeremy Smith is physical and I’m sure he’s been giving them a few wrestling tips as well.
“I mean, every team has good back-rowers but they’re both internationals and Gallen is NSW captain – you can’t say much more about those guys. Anthony Tupou is an offloading machine and then Jason Bukuya has been playing awesome footy, so they’ve got plenty of strike there. We’re going to have to defend well.”
The Warriors have twice let 18-0 first half leads slip in the past fortnight to fall out of the top eight, with Mateo admitting the confidence of his team-mates had taken a battering.
“Obviously each individual feels a bit lower on confidence but as a team we still feel that we can beat any side in the competition,” he said. “We’ve proved the past few weeks that we can put big leads on sides – we just need to work on doing it for the full 80 minutes.”
SIMS RETURN SHOCK… North Queensland could be set to receive an unexpected boost on the eve of the finals with sources at the club telling NRL.com that star back-rower Tariq Sims is a real chance of making a shock return from injury in the coming weeks. Sims was expected to miss the rest of the season after he broke both bones in his left leg in Round 11 but has exceeded expectations during his recovery and is reportedly determined to take part in this year’s finals series.
KINGSTON TARGET… We hear that the Canberra Raiders are considering making a play for current Penrith captain Kevin Kingston. Kingston is contracted to the Panthers for the 2013 season but Canberra are in the market for a hooker and see Kingston as a viable target. Such a move would also help ease Penrith’s stretched salary cap next year.
HARRISON, TAYLOR TOE TO TOE… Having missed the past six weeks – and State of Origin III – with a broken toe, the prospect of having Queensland team-mate Dave Taylor step on his foot isn’t the most appealing idea for returning Gold Coast lock Ashley Harrison this Sunday.
“Yeah, that will be interesting,” Harrison laughed at the thought of this week’s back-row clash. “But hopefully it’s heeled now, so he can jump on it all he wants!”
One of a number of crucial games this weekend, the Titans-Souths clash pits arguably the two most damaging back rows in the NRL against one another, although Harrison said his side couldn’t afford to spend too much time worrying about Taylor and co.
“I don’t think any side is [as dangerous],” he said. “I think they test you right across the park. They can go end to end and side to side, so we’re going to have to be on our game defensively to combat that. They’ve got a huge pack but it’s not just their pack – their backs and their halves are firing so they’re definitely the form team of the competition.”
Harrison hasn’t played since fracturing his toe in multiple places against St George Illawarra in Round 16 but said he was confident he would take his place in the starting side on Sunday.
“I tried it out a couple of weeks ago and it wasn’t quite right,” he said. “I was probably dreaming a little bit hoping it would be right in a month but it feels a lot better two weeks down the track.
“It was just a matter of letting it heel and the toe telling me when it’s right. Most bones take six weeks to heel and it’s been six weeks now, so I know it’s heeled.”
RACE ON FOR STIG… Don’t be surprised if forgotten Knights playmaker Ryan Stig attracts plenty of interest from rival clubs in the coming months. After impressing in his maiden season 12 months ago, an eye injury has sidelined the 22-year-old for most of 2012, with Tyrone Roberts taking his opportunity with a series of scintillating performances in recent weeks. Roberts was recently rewarded with a new two-year deal at the Knights and with Jarrod Mullen certain to start 2013 at five-eighth and captain Kurt Gidley returning from injury, Stig will have his work cut out for him winning his place back. He remains contracted for 2013 but expect rival clubs to swoop.