Soward snarls at Panthers' critics
It's been almost three years in the making, but the in-form Jamie Soward that some fans came to know and love – and some of us didn't – has officially returned.
While his Panthers remain joint competition leaders after a thrilling 35-34 victory over Brisbane last week, many fans refuse to acknowledge the mountain men as a legitimate premiership threat.
And Soward struggles to understand why. Ahead of this week's blockbuster against reigning premiers the Roosters, the stand-in Penrith skipper has stoutly defended his team's lofty position on the NRL ladder.
"I don't know what everyone's waiting for. We're playing for each other, we're playing who the draw says we play. I don't know who everyone wants us to play," he told NRL.com this week.
"We've played Melbourne in Melbourne and lost by a point. We played Canterbury out here and won by a close margin. We've had a couple of close games, we've defended really well away from home.
"I don't understand why we're the only club getting questioned on the draw. We're probably lucky in a way that we didn't have rep guys affect us. But in saying that, as a playing group, we're disappointing that some of our guys that were in form didn't get a go. That question's starting to annoy me now."
The former NSW pivot has always been a polarising figure whose mouth has been as well-directed as his kicking game. Much to the admonishment of PR types, the bloke wasn't afraid to tell you what he was thinking. And particularly under supercoach Wayne Bennett, he revelled in it.
Although after marshalling the Dragons to a premiership in 2010, his career nosedived to the point of no return in Wollongong and at this point last year he was cooped up in London with a club that is now on its knees.
But having resurrected his football with the resurgent Panthers, Soward went on the front foot to defend his team's success so far in 2014.
"We play who the draw says we play like everyone else has for the last 105 years or however long the comp's been going," he said.
"Every team in the NRL is a tough team. You only gotta look at the couple of games over the last couple of weeks - the Sharks are playing good footy, the Raiders are throwing it around.
"We're playing who the draw says we play. I don't think Ivan [Cleary] met with the guy that makes the draw and said can we play these guys and not these guys. That's not how the draw comes out."
Saturday afternoon's clash against the Roosters presents the perfect opportunity for Soward and his teammates to prove the naysayers wrong.
With skipper Peter Wallace still sidelined with a knee injury – winger Josh Mansour is likely to be ruled out as well – the Panthers will start as underdogs against a Roosters side fresh off the bye and eager to atone for a last-start loss to Cronulla.
Soward labels it his side's biggest test of the year, but remains confident of getting the result.
"It's going to be a massive test. A four-and-a-half-day turnaround, against the premiers who've had a week in camp, looking to get their season rolling to go into the finals... it doesn't get any bigger than that," he said.
"We're confident. I mean, we've got to wait and see what kind of team we're going to have, but in saying that, [on Monday night] we had all the excuses in the world to lie down and give that game away and we played probably the best 20 minutes of footy we played after halftime with 15 guys.
" We didn't shut the game how we wanted, but in saying that, we won."