Penrith’s recent win over Manly was important in many respects, including ending a nine-game losing streak against top-eight opposition, stretching back to last season’s semi-final loss to Canberra.
It also meant the preseason competition favorites avoided the potential embarrassment of having not defeated top-eight opposition during the regular season for the first time since 1980.
But perhaps most importantly of all, the win may have just heralded a welcome return to form of prop, Leilani Latu as the Panthers face a run into the finals without the services of their most influential forward, Trent Merrin.
There’s no doubt Latu’s form has dipped in 2017, having averaged just 61 metres and 16 tackles per game despite being just one of four Panthers to have played all 17 games to date.
There were suggestions Latu's form was related to the prop forward wanting to head elsewhere in 2018, despite having inked a three-year contract extension to the end of 2020 only last season before the prop forward hosed such suggestions down at a recent media session.
Latu confirmed his 42 minute effort against Manly that produced 143 metres from 19 runs, before making 20 tackles without a missing a beat to boot, was easily his best game of the season to date.
But while the former Bulldog, who made his NRL debut with Penrith in 2015, also revealed that his form has dipped as a result of playing off the bench, given average game time has reduced from 46 minutes (2016) to just 36 thus far in 2017, the Tongan international appreciates the faith shown by Panthers coach Anthony Griffin.
“My effort (against Manly) was a step forward for my game and anything I can do for the team that betters us then I glad, but (overall) I’ve been very disappointed with my form,” Latu told Nepean News.
“From starting last year to coming off the bench this year has been a big transition for me.
“But I’m very blessed to have a coach like Hook (Anthony Griffin).
“Each week he takes me aside and talks to me about my game and what I can improve on.
“(Against Manly) all he said was try and make an impact when you come out there and I tried to do that for the team."
Photos: 77 Media
Latu’s under-rated attacking game has also gone amiss for large chunks of the season, having produced just 13 tackle-breaks, 3 line-breaks and 2 offloads to his name as opposed to a stellar 2016 season that yielded 25 tackle-breaks, 4 line-breaks, 13 offloads, 4 try assists and 6 line-break assists.
But having forged a strong partnership with Bryce Cartwright in 2016, Latu denies his attacking game has suffered on the back of Cartwright's absence, having all but missed the 2017 season to date.
“Not necessarily (missing Bryce) but that’s the NRL. Some players get injured and they get replaced," Latu admitted.
“You’ve got to learn to adjust to that so now I’m trying to build some combinations with Yowie (Yeo) and Corey on the other side.”
“Those combinations are getting there and hopefully we can continue to build on that.”