Cleary beats Hasler to underdog tag

Having spent the past week with their heads in the clouds following their stunning defeat of the defending premiers, Panthers coach Ivan Cleary has moved quickly to assume underdog status for this Saturday's grand final qualifier against the Bulldogs.

A somewhat surprise entrant of the NRL's final four, Cleary said his team had been playing with the outsider's tag for almost the past two months. 

"I think the last seven games we've played, we've probably been underdogs. And we'll probably be the same thing this week," he said at a coach's call from Rugby League Central on Monday. 

"We understand where we are and who we are. We just try and make it hard for teams to beat us."

His counterpart however, a famous subscriber to under-the-radar methodology, surprisingly rejected his pre-match ritual of labelling their opposition as favourites for the match.

"Nah, I won't go there," Des Hasler said.

The normally cagey Bulldogs coach instead played a straight bat when it came to dissecting what was key at this time of the season.

"When it comes to the finals, it comes down to the game and the match and the momentum and the flow. Let's hope it's a lack of referees calls, and I think it'll be a real tight game," he continued.

"There's so much to play for. The players more than anything, are aware of that. So it'll come down to someone's carry, or someone's pass, or someone's tackle, or a kick – and Penrith are very well versed in a lot of those things."

Cleary said his side had come back down from the euphoria of eclipsing minor premiers the Roosters with a final-minute field goal a week ago.
 
"Yeah, it was a fairly big occasion for us," he said. "It's not every day that the Panthers are actually in the finals. And to beat the premiers is a pretty big deal. I guess we've had a bit of time to come back down, which we have. Hopefully we can have a bit more fun this week."

While the Panthers will have had the best part of two weeks to prepare for this week's showdown, the Bulldogs will spend a large part of their preparation recovering from last Saturday night's golden point epic against Manly.
 
Hasler predicted another down-to-the-wire finish against the season's surprise packets.
 
"I guess time will tell [how they back up]," he said. "I'm glad Ivan enjoyed it because I didn't. But look, such is the way players are full-time and recovery is advanced and all that. We'll wait and see how the match pans out. I think it will end up close."

The Bulldogs were boosted by news second-rower Josh Jackson has been cleared of a chicken wing tackle by the match review committee, while the Panthers lock Adam Docker is expected to return following a two-game suspension for a dangerous throw.