Peter Sterling: Write off Penrith at your peril

One coach described the majority of his team’s performance as "inept", while the other, in regards to his side, opted for "disappointing and a kick up the backside".

On the back of that form, you could be excused for thinking that the meeting of Penrith and Wests Tigers a week later may not be much of a spectacle.

Dynasty: Coach Ivan Cleary left the Tigers to return to Penrith and coach son Nathan.

Dynasty: Coach Ivan Cleary left the Tigers to return to Penrith and coach son Nathan.Credit:Penrith Panthers/Kylie Cox

Think again. During the dramas at both Penrith and the Wests Tigers over recent seasons, there have been more twists than in an Agatha Christie novel. Poirot would have been in his element. The build-up to and the first clash between these rivals was always going to be riveting.

Michael Maguire and Ivan Cleary have played down Friday night's showdown as no different to any other, insisting they are focused entirely on improving sub-par performances from their respective charges last weekend.

Meanwhile, we all want it to be a grudge match of the highest order. Cleary is back at the club that sacked him up against the team that then picked him up, until he jumped off the bus short of its destination so he could return to the club which sacked him so he could coach his son, who at one stage was linked with that club and is the NSW halfback, but not in the best form in a side many predicted would finish top four.

Phew! I'm exhausted and excited just thinking about it – and don't start me on the Wayne Bennett revelation.

The reality of this rugby league soap opera is that it is early in the season and Friday night really is about producing something much better than both teams put on the park last week.

There is more pressure on the Panthers to do so because they have been poor in all three games. I'm expecting things to turn around sooner than later because I'm a fan of what they have to offer and where I think it can take them.

To be a successful club you must have the necessary balance. The Panthers have an extremely formidable forward pack, so much so that after they belted the Dragons 28-2 in round 12 last season, I declared it was arguably the best in the competition.

That was based on the size, skill and athleticism of the engine room, including what was coming off the bench and I believe they have the potential to again be a real force. They have lost the experience and footwork of both Trent Merrin and Corey Harawira-Naera but the return tonight of Viliame Kikau is clearly a huge boost and rounds out their starting pack.

Forward thinking: Viliame Kikau's return is a big boost for the Panthers' misfiring forward pack.

Forward thinking: Viliame Kikau’s return is a big boost for the Panthers’ misfiring forward pack.Credit:AAP

There has been criticism that they lack a forward leader. Premiership winning sides have invariably had that dominant alpha male, from the likes of Glenn Lazarus and Shane Webcke through to Sam Burgess, Matt Scott, Paul Gallen, Jesse Bromwich and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves.

I believe Kikau and/or Reagan Campbell-Gillard will step up. The backline has speed to burn, guided by representative halves.

Waqa Blake has the natural ability to be anything in our game and has good finishers around him. Forget the fumbling effort of fullback Dylan Edwards against Melbourne, he has quality and a shocker out of his system.

It should also be remembered that Edwards, with a shoulder reconstruction, Nathan Cleary an ankle and James Maloney a neck problem, are all returning from off-season surgery.

The father and son coaching situation is unusual but not unprecedented. At the same club, coach John Lang was able to guide his son, Martin, to a title in 2003.

The approach and mindset that Ivan Cleary will follow is that demonstrated by Chris Anderson at Melbourne in 1999 who dropped his son and five-eighth Ben from the side after playing 12 straight games leading into and including the first week of finals. The Storm went on to win the title with Matt Geyer alongside Brett Kimmorley in the halves.

In essence, that underlines that when tough decisions need to be made they must to be made without fear or favour.

Throw in what can be an effective hooker rotation, superb kickers (both in general play and for goal) and a coach who was able to steer the Warriors into a grand final and I think there is a lot to like.

In their opening games Penrith’s completion rates have been 62, 69 and 63 percent. If they reproduce that again tonight, they will get beaten. If they are over 80 percent and can play aggressively with and without the ball, then we may see a very different football team.

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