Penrith are on a collision course with reigning premiers Melbourne after being stunned by South Sydney 16-10 in the qualifying final in Townsville.
Ivan Cleary insists Penrith’s title charge has not become any harder despite facing the toughest possible path to reach a second straight grand final.
The Panthers’ 16-10 loss to South Sydney in Saturday night’s qualifying final has turned the finals series upside down, placing the top two seeds on the same side.
Penrith will now not only miss out on a week off, but must face the winner of Parramatta and Newcastle next week.
Beyond that, an even tougher challenge awaits, with minor premiers Melbourne their preliminary final opponents if they get through to the third week.
“That’s the challenge ahead of us,” coach Ivan Cleary said.
“We had to win three games once we hit the finals and nothing has changed.
“I don’t think we will lose many friends tonight. It really came down to opportunities we didn’t ice that you need to win those games.”
The coach’s words were echoed by son Nathan, with Saturday night’s loss his first in 19 games at all levels this year.
The halfback reckoned that one loss won’t set their resilient playing group back and that they’ll continue to adopt their ‘no regrets’ mentality after falling at the final hurdle in 2020.
“We have to win three games to win it and nothing’s changed,” he said.
“We’ve got to pick ourselves up, we’re still filled with belief and just do it the hard way now.”
Penrith also face a nervous wait on whether Isaah Yeo will be charged for a crusher tackle on Tevita Tatola, with Liam Martin also penalised for the same offence.
But fullback Dylan Edwards, who missed Saturday’s match with a minor injury, is expected to return for their elimination final in Mackay next week.