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Cleary's conundrum: COVID test, centre debate create Panthers bench headache

The six-game centre who's spent the past two weeks tackling Viliame Kikau or the breakout star who warmed the bench for an entire 80 minutes?

The local junior whose cruelly timed COVID-19 test could cost him a grand final crack, or the late-bloomer who has already performed 18th man duties while his teammates claimed a premiership?

A remarkable combination of diligence, professionalism and luck has left Ivan Cleary with an entire top 30 Panthers squad to choose from for Sunday's grand final against Melbourne.

The Penrith coach has some serious selection headaches looming for the decider with his bench make-up and right centre options, and the credentials of Tyrone May, Brent Naden, Spencer Leniu and Kurt Capewell all posing particular pause for thought.

 

 

Cleary caught plenty by surprise when he named May at centre against South Sydney, benching Naden after what the 24-year-old described as "a few defensive slip-ups against the Roosters".

With Kikau returning from suspension and James Fisher-Harris and Zane Tetevano both avoiding charges for high shots against the Rabbitohs, Capewell is expected to return to the bench in the utility role May has filled adeptly for much of 2020.

Moses Leota and Tetevano are going nowhere after telling contributions in Cleary's front-row rotation.

But up until the finals young tyro Leniu was more than impressive off the pine as well, and had been named there for the preliminary final after he had recovered from 24-hour bout of flu.

"I got COVID tested and got it back Tuesday night so we thought I was sweet," Leniu told NRL.com.

"But the risk of getting the other boys sick meant I couldn't train or be near the boys.

"It was only a 24-hour thing for me and I wasn't even that sick, but obviously you don't muck around this year.

"Not training with the team, Ivan told me he couldn't pick me and I would've felt so bad if I got anyone else sick. Imagine being sick for the grand final because I gave it to one of the boys and they had to miss out?

"If it means me missing out, we've talked about an all-in culture all year.

"If someone goes down, you know someone's going to come in as replacement and do the job."

Mitch Kenny's inclusion as Leniu's replacement proved a sound one when Api Koroisau was briefly sidelined with a 'stinger' to his shoulder on Saturday.

Then there were two

But with Capewell – who served as Cronulla's 18th man for their 2016 decider – and May both able to fill the utility role, Naden may well be the unlucky man out come grand final day after not seeing any game time against the Rabbitohs.

If that's the case he wasn't kicking stones during Sunday's squad-wide media day, joking throughout and badgering Brian To'o for a ride on the ever-present scooter in between interviews.

"That [would be] pretty selfish," Naden said.

"We’ve got a value, a team value - it’s like ‘team before I’. It’s pretty selfish if you think [outside that value].

"Hethro [Jack Hetherington] said to me, ‘At least you’re still in the team, I’m not in the 21. At least you’re still in the 17.’ It gave me a bit of perspective on it."

Should May maintain the rage out on the right edge it will be just his sixth game at centre in his NRL career, and roughly his tenth all up having come through the grades as a half/lock.

Get Caught Up: Finals Week 3

Whoever gets the gig has the task of stopping Papau New Guinean wrecking ball Justin Olam, who is regarded as one of the heaviest hitters in the game after a stellar 2020 season.

"Ooft" was the reaction of May and reporters alike as they worked out the potential match-up.

"He's a heck of a player," May said.

"He's doing his country proud too… he's going to be a tough man to mark.

"He looks as hard as a rock, so hopefully I've got my shoulders on early."

With Kikau joining Penrith's second-string side, affectionately known as 'The Cougars' for the past two weeks, the 119-kilo Fijian spent his suspension lining up May and the rest of Penrith's right edge.

"He doesn't like me very much at the moment," Kikau quipped when asked how May matched up.

"Luckily I get to defend inside someone that I live with [Nathan Cleary] and two boys that I grew up playing with [Brian To'o and Liam Martin].

" I have trust in him (Nathan). He's a good defender for a half and I can trust him to make his tackles. Hopefully he can trust me to make mine.

Match Highlights: Panthers v Rabbitohs

"I didn't start training there until I got named to start there one week [earlier in the year].

"But last year when I wasn't playing I was filling in a lot of different positions, wing and centre.

"It's just something I've got to know being the utility. I could get thrown in anywhere, I could go from centre to hooker. Hopefully that doesn't happen because the job's a bit harder."