Whare to return in Panthers trial
Waqa Blake's star turn for the Panthers at the Downer NRL Auckland Nines has turned up the heat on Kiwi internationals Dean Whare and Peta Hiku, both of whom could make their returns from long injury lay-offs in Saturday's trial against the Bulldogs.
Blake scored two of the best tries on Sunday as the Panthers progressed all the way to the final, the towering centre picking up where he left off in 2016 where he scored tries in each of his last six games.
Whare hasn't played for Penrith since Round 2 last year due to calf problems and then a ruptured ACL but will line up against the Bulldogs at Belmore Sports Ground on Saturday evening with Hiku also a chance of playing.
In his first season with Penrith last year Hiku played the first 11 games of the season – scoring five tries – before he too ruptured his medical and anterior cruciate ligaments against the Titans.
Hiku is slightly behind Whare in terms of their recovery but coach Anthony Griffin said they may both get game-time against the Bulldogs.
"Dean is ahead of Peta. Dean's recon was a lot simpler than Pet's," Griffin said after his young Panthers squad went down 10-8 to the Roosters in the Auckland Nines final.
"Pete had a couple of issues with medials but Deano is ready to go and he'll play next week against the Bulldogs.
"Pet's a little bit behind but we might give him 20 minutes against the Bulldogs if he has a good week this week."
Revelling in the extra room to move Blake was near unstoppable running out wide during the Nines, showing great strength and speed to be named in the Team of the Tournament.
In his 39 NRL games to date Blake has played 31 of them in the centres and Griffin said it will be up to Whare and Hiku to displace him prior to Round 1.
"He had a great season last year at centre," Griffin said when asked whether Blake could be pushed out to the wing.
"He's a big, athletic, quick kid, and as you've seen today, he's in really good shape.
"He finished the year great at right centre so it's up to the other blokes to get past."
Criticised pre-tournament for the strength of their squad, the Panthers paraded another batch of talented youngsters with the likes of Tyrone May, Dylan Edwards, Kaide Ellis and Jed Cartwright all making themselves known to the wider rugby league world.
"It was magnificent to give those guys a run on the big stage," Griffin said.
"They did everything we wanted them to do. It would have been nice for them to win that last one… but very happy. We got out injury-free too which was great.
"We got in trouble for not bringing a strong enough side from the NRL. I don't know how that works.
"They're just good boys. They're very mentally tough, very committed, and as the tournament got a bit longer, they got a bit stronger which was nice to see from a club point of view.
"We had the option obviously if it didn't work out were we were going [home on Sunday] but it was nice for us to experience a semi-final and a final on the big stage like that.
"It'll be invaluable for them."