Kevin Walters wants more direction and better kicking from his playmakers with Penrith’s opposing half Nathan Cleary handling the ball almost as often as the combined output of Brisbane’s two halves in 2021.
Walters has trusted young gun Tom Dearden and Brodie Croft to lead the team against the Panthers on Thursday night after dumping Anthony Milford to the Intrust Super Cup, the coach weighing up five weeks of form before pulling the trigger on the club’s highest-paid player.
Milford has averaged four missed tackles and 51.6 receipts in five games this year, with his 37 touches in last week’s loss to South Sydney the least impact he’s had all year.
Croft has averaged 40.3 touches in his three starting games, while Dearden is only marginally more involved with 41.5 receipts in his past two games as halfback.
Cleary, on the other hand, is constantly on the ball and involved in the play with a season average of 74.25 receipts in 2021 as his combination with five-eighth Jarome Luai (44.8 receipts) has taken the Panthers on an undefeated run to start the year.
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The Panthers duo are rated the leading halves combination in the NRL this year but Walters is sending his new pairing out with a very simple job at Suncorp Stadium.
"They need to direct the team and our kick finishes need to be a lot better and they need to tackle well," Walters said.
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"It’s a big challenge for both of them in those areas but it’s something they can both do and it’s up to them to go do it.
"[Cleary and Luai] are playing some good footy, the two of them. They’re really leading the way for Penrith and it’s a big challenge for our guys tomorrow night to be up to the standard that those guys set.
"Tom needs to be Tom. He needs to show us Tom Dearden. Everyone believes he is the future here at the Broncos and I believe that as well and we need to see that from Tom on Thursday night.
"It’s a quality opposition. They’ve been a good side for a long time Penrith and for me as a coach and watching these younger players this is a great opportunity for them to show their skills and where they are at from a football point of view."
The Broncos are considered such rank underdogs for tomorrow’s clash at Suncorp Stadium, paying as much as $12 in head-to-head betting while the Panthers are as short as $1.03 with a line set at a staggering +27.5 points.
"There is always pressure on the Broncos, it’s the jersey, it’s the badge, regardless of what other people think we need this team and I believe this team will go out and give a good account of themselves tomorrow night," Walters said.
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"That is what it’s about. We don’t look at odds. We obviously look at who we are playing but that’s irrelevant, it’s what happens with these guys in the Broncos jersey tomorrow night that I am most concerned with."
Walters has ruled out making an offer for off-contract South Sydney half Adam Reynolds for the time being, preferring to focus on the retention of Kotoni Staggs, Dearden and Xavier Coates before considering what talent is available on the open market.
As a five-time premiership-winning playmaker for the Broncos, Walters believes he has what it takes to find the answer to their halves conundrum.
"What’s personal for me is fixing up the Broncos," he said.
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"They finished last last year, this is a new season and a new era and we have to fix the place up. It will take us a bit of time but I’ve seen some positive things.
"It’s obviously not my roster as such that I selected but I’m working with these guys, they’re a good bunch of guys and we will continue to make them better and improve them."
Walters said as the club was only five rounds into the season and the chance to improve over the rest of the year was "is what excites me".