Penrith coach Ivan Cleary isn't desperate for a top-two finish, but the Panthers want to continue their winning ways for their supporters enduring lockdown in western Sydney.
With the Greater Sydney region in lockdown until at least August 28, Cleary said it was unlikely that NSW-based teams would return from Queensland this season so the reward for finishing in the top two could be no greater than third or fourth.
The Panthers take on Melbourne in a top-of-the-table clash at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night in a match likely to have a heavy bearing on the minor premiership.
Parramatta’s 28-0 loss to Sydney Roosters on Thursday night all but ensures a three-way battle for the JJ Giltinan Shield between the Storm, Panthers (both on 34 points) and Rabbitohs (32).
The Eels, Roosters (both now on 28) and Manly (24) are vying for fourth place and Cleary believes whichever team claims the spot is likely to be on equal footing with Melbourne, Penrith and Souths when the finals begin.
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"It might not be as important as it was," Cleary said of finishing first or second. "In the top two the big benefit there was being at home in that first week of the finals
"There is obviously a lot of uncertainty, but the way Sydney is looking I can’t imagine we will be going back there in a hurry, so it may not be."
The NRL is yet to announce details of matches beyond next weekend and remains hopeful that teams will be able to host home finals in September.
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Cleary said it was important for the Panthers to be in good form heading into the finals regardless of where they finish.
"We have got some big games coming up, we play some of the top teams starting this week, so we are just worried about this week at the moment and giving the best performance we possibly can," he said.
The Panthers’ only two losses this season came during the recent Origin period when they were without halves Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai, lock Isaiah Yeo, winger Brian To’o, hooker Api Koroisau and second-rower Kurt Capewell.
Cleary (shoulder), Yeo (HIA), To’o (ankle) and Koroisau (suspended) will be missing on Saturday night but after last year’s 17-match winning streak was ended by Melbourne in the grand final, the Panthers may be playing the long game.
With matches against the Roosters, Dragons, Rabbitohs, Tigers and Eels ahead, a loss to Melbourne would make it difficult for Penrith to win back-to-back minor premierships.
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However, Cleary said the Panthers wanted to win as many games as possible for their fans in Penrith and the surrounding areas that are under the strictest COVID-19 restrictions in Sydney.
"I think our boys are well aware of how lucky we are to be able to continue to do the things we love and be able to earn a living," Cleary said. "There is no uncertainty there about how grateful we are.
"It is obviously extremely tough times for all of our fans back in Penrith and throughout Sydney. It is quite distressing for those guys.
“We have got a big responsibility to be able to play some good football and give our community something to look forward to on the weekend.
"Certainly, the Panthers community is one that loves their footy team and you always hear stories about productivity being better in a workplace on a Monday if we have played well. We certainly understand that."
Cleary said it was still unclear when Kiwis prop James Fisher-Harris could re-join the team after flying home to Sydney for the birth of his daughter this week.
Tongan forward Tevita Pangai-jnr will commence training with Penrith on Monday and will be available for next weekend’s clash with the Roosters.