Panthers bracing for Shark attack
As they prepare to take on an Origin-depleted Cronulla side this weekend, Panthers players are wary of underestimating a team most outsiders are tipping them to handle with ease.
The Sharks will be missing James Maloney, Jack Bird, Wade Graham, Andrew Fifita and Paul Gallen, while the Panthers will be without Blues duo Josh Mansour and Matt Moylan.
On paper, it appears to be the perfect time for Penrith to take on the table-topping Sharks and reboot their own top-eight aspirations, but Panthers lock Trent Merrin said he'd prefer the challenge of taking them on at full-strength.
"I'd actually love to play them with all their players in," Merrin said.
"That's when you really get a true test of character and you want to play against the best players. We'll take them on without their guns but they're still going to be a handful. Players tend to step up when the leaders are out.
"They've been fantastic all year. They've got a mix of everything; they've got the old heads, x-factor and young talent. They've been awesome this year and it's going to be a great test for us to come up against the number one team."
Fellow Panther Isaah Yeo said the Sharks shouldn't be taken lightly despite the mass changes.
"They've got five out, but the depth their team has got, it doesn't look like much has changed," he said.
"When you've got players out, it's going to affect you no matter what. Hopefully it benefits us, but you look at the depth they've got – the back five is probably the best in the comp even though they've got two out."
The lure of knocking off the best team in the competition - and ending their 12-game winning streak - hasn't been lost on the Panthers playing group, but according to Merrin, the team has bigger fish to fry.
The pain of a disappointing 34-26 loss to the Wests Tigers has lingered in Penrith, and overturning last weekend's error-riddled loss is paramount.
"It'd be awesome [to end the streak], but that's not what we're focusing on," he said.
"It was a pretty poor performance last week against the Tigers, but we've done our analysis and we know where we went wrong.
"I think we just went away from our game plan. I think when you come up against a team like the Tigers, they like to throw the ball around with their sort of touch footy style of play.
"I think that can trap some teams into going away from what they do. That's what happened with us and we fell into their trap."
The Panthers won't go into Sunday's game overawed after they took it to the Sharks when they last met in Round 8, giving up a 14-8 lead with 15 minutes remaining to eventually go down by two points.
"We've taken confidence out of a lot of our games when we've come up against top eight teams," Merrin said.
"We know we can get the job done, but I think the biggest focus is ourselves. We're beating ourselves at the moment and as soon as we realise that we can start winning those close games."