Ivan Cleary believes the big match experience his Penrith players have received since last year’s grand final will hold them in good stead for their shot at premiership glory.
Cleary admitted the Panthers may have been weighed down in recent weeks by the expectation that they would beat South Sydney in the opening finals match and then win again last Saturday against Parramatta.
However, that pressure has now lifted as the Storm are raging favourites to end Penrith’s season in Saturday's preliminary final at Suncorp Stadium.
Cleary was noticeably more relaxed at Friday’s captain’s run press conference than he had been before the Rabbitohs and Eels matches.
"Although you don’t like to admit it, I think it would be naive to think we were weren’t under a little bit of pressure through [our] out-and-out favouritism in both those games," Cleary said.
Storm v Panthers - Preliminary final
"I think that has kind of flipped this week."
After winning 17 consecutive matches before last season’s grand final, the Panthers were stunned by a first-half onslaught from Melbourne and trailed 22-0 at the break before losing 26-20.
Only hooker Api Koroisau and departing forwards James Tamou and Zane Tetevano had previously played in a grand final, while halfback Nathan Cleary was Penrith’s sole State of Origin representative.
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However, after the grand final, lock Isaah Yeo and second-rower Kurt Capewell played in the end-of-season Origin series, along with Cleary, while five-eighth Jarome Luai and centre Stephen Crichton were in an extended NSW squad.
Cleary, Yeo, Capewell, Luai, Koroisau, Brian To’o and Liam Martin also played in this season’s series and after being undefeated until they went into camp ahead of Origin I, the Panthers lost four of their next 14 matches.
"It does affect your season. Six out of the seven had never done it mid-season before," Cleary said.
"We always knew there was going to be some challenges out of that and I think history will show that even the best teams – the Broncos and Storm – have had years of trying to deal with Origin and the hangover, and all of that kind of stuff.
"However, we also felt from a positive point of view that playing in those games was going to help us the big games so hopefully it comes to the fore tomorrow night.
"I know it is a bit of an old adage that you’ve got to lose one [grand final] to win one but it is not so much about that … it is actually about learning about the subtle differences in those games.
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"We hadn’t lost for four months so there is a lot of things that we probably look back on and wish we could have improved on but that is part of life and part of the journey.
"I think all of those little experiences allow you to prepare yourself a little bit better for the times ahead."
That time is now and if the Panthers are to win the premiership they will have done it the hard way after surrendering the opportunity to have last weekend off by losing to Souths and being flipped onto the same side of the draw as Melbourne.
Prop Moses Leota is a late withdrawal with a foot injury and interchange forward Mitch Kenny has been ruled out after being forced from the field against the Eels with a season-ending ankle sprain.
The NRL Telstra Premiership preliminary finals are here!
The fall-out from that incident is still being played out after Cleary announced that Penrith were contesting a $25,000 fine for trainer Pete Green stopping the game with Parramatta on the attack in the 76th minute to assess Kenny.
Green has been provisionally suspended for the rest of the season, while fellow trainer Hayden Knowles was given a warning.
"We feel bad for both of our trainers involved, one of which was named and shamed which I just think is completely unfair," Cleary said of Green.
"We kind of understand how [the NRL] came to that conclusion but at the end of the day, they were just doing their job."