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Panthers coach Ivan Cleary.

It's made their task of winning the premiership tougher but a guarded Ivan Cleary insisted last weekend's upset loss to South Sydney was just a "hiccup".

The Penrith coach was adamant on Friday that his team was ready to bounce back against Parramatta in Saturday night's semi-final in Mackay.

After losing just three matches all season, Penrith must now overcome the Eels and minor premiers Melbourne to qualify in the grand final. Few tip them to do so after their 16-10 defeat to the Rabbitohs.

The Panthers had to fly to Townsville and back from the Sunshine Coast last Saturday for the match against Souths and will make a same-day return trip to Mackay to play Parramatta.

The Storm played Manly on the Sunshine Coast, where they are also staying, and now have a 15-day break before their qualifying final.

Cleary quashes fatigue factor for young Panthers

Cleary said last week's letdown hadn't thrown the team out of kilter.

"Certainly, the idea was that we preferred not to have to play this week but it is a different path, so we are playing," Cleary said after Penrith’s final training session before the match against Parramatta.

"I think when you do lose, it is natural to just want to get out there and perform better. That is the whole focus this week and the vibe is very good as usual here, so we are looking forward to the challenge.

"Last week was just a hiccup really and we have got to play better."

Cleary wouldn't say whether strike second-rower Viliame Kikau would start the match or play from the interchange or how he planned to attack Parramatta’s right edge pairing of Blake Ferguson and rookie centre Will Penisini.

Panthers v Eels - Semi-Final

"I will let you know later," Cleary said of Kikau. "It is just what is best for the team really.

"We’ve looked at a bunch of things, both edges are important, our middles are important, everyone has got to play a bit better."

Cleary did not want to discuss his exchange with Souths mentor Wayne Bennett before and after last weekend’s defeat about defenders pressuring kickers and the use of blockers or a call he made for coaches to be banned from pre-match comments about referees.

Asked if he felt that either himself or the team had been too caught up or distracted by the exchange with Bennett, Cleary said: "No, I don’t".

He said he hadn’t followed up his post-match comments about coaches influencing referees with the NRL, and wasn’t sure if he would.

"I said what I said, and I believe what I said," Cleary said.

Why sixes must provide the spark in Panthers-Eels showdown

He did say that Penrith would be a stronger team with the return of fullback Dylan Edwards and interchange forwards Moses Leota and Scott Sorensen.

While stand-in fullback Stephen Crichton was one of his team’s best performers against the Rabbitohs, the Panthers missed the support play of Edwards – particularly when lock Isaah Yeo made a break through the middle of the ruck and no team-mates were close enough for him to pass to.

"Dylan is a very important player in our team for a bunch of reasons, a lot of things an outsider can’t see," Cleary said.

"He is good at [organising] and his support play is top rate as well so some of those little moments where you make breaks he doesn’t miss those so he could have been handy."

Dissecting the war of words between Bennett and Cleary

For the Panthers to win the premiership, they would need to become just the fifth team since the introduction of the top-eight system in the NRL era to do so after losing in the first weekend of finals matches.

Johnathan Thurston played for the 2004 Bulldogs and 2015 Cowboys teams which achieved the rare feat, but he doesn’t think Penrith can overcome Melbourne next weekend if they beat the Eels.

"If they had the week off, I think they could have beaten Melbourne in the grand final but I think the week off for Melbourne is going to give them a big advantage," Thurston said.

"I think having Dylan Edwards and Moses Leota back will make a difference because they missed them last week, but the week off has become crucial, especially for the Storm. They don’t miss too often when they are in this position."

 

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