NRL 2021: Penrith Panthers star Brian To’o confirmed to return for preliminary final against Melbourne Storm
Explosive winger Brian To’o is set to provide a huge boost for the battle-weary Panthers when he returns to face the Storm this weekend.
An ankle injury kept To’o out of Penrith’s epic semi-final win over Parramatta, but coach Ivan Cleary confirmed on Friday that he had “done well” to recover from the complaint and looked “really good” ahead of Saturday’s grand final qualifier.
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To’o was named in the extended squad to face the Storm and will likely bump Bulldogs-bound Brent Naden out of the starting side upon his return.
To’o, who underwent ankle surgery earlier this season, had been eager to play in the semi-final, but Cleary opted to give the Origin star a week’s rest to shake off the injury.
“He put his hand up to play last week, actually. We pulled him out,” Cleary said.
“(Having the week off) is going to be a big benefit for him, I think.
“He looks completely different this week. He’s a big part of our team, not just the way he plays but the way he connects people around him and the energy he brings.
“It certainly will be good to have him back in there.”
Barnstorming second-rower Viliame Kikau had a night to forget against the Eels, and the combination of an ankle injury and a sizeable gash to his leg threatened to derail his finals campaign. Cleary confirmed, however, that he is also “looked good” ahead of Saturday night’s prelim.
Panthers prop Moses Leota hasn’t been so lucky. The recently re-signed big man missed the qualifying final loss to South Sydney through injury and has once again been kept out of the side with a calf complaint.
He’ll be joined on the sideline by Mitch Kenny, who found himself at the centre of controversy this week.
The NRL hit the Panthers with a $25,000 fine for stopping play “incorrectly” in the 76th minute of the semi-final win.
A Panthers trainer asked the referee to stop play as the Eels were on the attack so he could attend to an injured Kenny, but requested the stoppage before assessing the extent of Kenny’s injury on-field.
The stoppage brought Parramatta’s momentum to a grinding halt and Penrith held on for a two-point win.
Pundits have been quick to write the Panthers off, given the Storm is at full-strength and has had an extra week off during the finals.
Penrith, meanwhile, has come under fire for appearing burnt out in its first two play-offs game. Cleary has rejected suggestion his team is worn out.
“I’m not worried about being tired, at all. There’s been absolutely no signs of that in this team for two years,” he said.
“We’ve probably been trying to find the same groove we were in for the start of the season for the back half of the year.
“I definitely feel like we’re hardened physically and mentally.”
Cleary said he saw signs of improvement in last week’s win.
“The most important thing from last week’s game was that we improved from our first outing against the Rabbitohs, which we certainly did,” he said.
“I think our intent on both sides of the ball was much better.
“I thought we created enough chances in both those games; we just haven’t quite taken those opportunities.”
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