Questions were asked as how the loss of Penrith’s influential lock-forward, Trent Merrin until at least Round 25, would impact on Penrith’s tight run into the finals.
Having started the season slowly, the Australian test forward had regained his form only to succumb to a knee injury in Penrith’s Round 19 win over the NZ Warriors.
But as often the case, such injuries have a silver lining.
In this instance, the injury has allowed Panthers enforcer, Reagan Campbell-Gillard to step up and play a Merrin-like role in his absence, averaging 60 minutes per game despite sitting out the opening twenty minutes of games on the interchange bench.
And the move to cover Merrin’s role in the middle from the bench has paid instant dividends, with the prop forward averaging 157 metres and 25 tackles per game, well above his season averages.
Campbell-Gillard refuted suggestions that his new role of starting from the interchange, with Bulldogs recruit, Tim Browne starting in his place, is a demotion.
The Windsor Wolves junior instead says he is enjoying the new role and admits that with 63 NRL games under his belt since making his debuting in the opening round of 2015, he is finally starting to play a consistent brand of footy.
“I don’t think it’s a performance demotion so wherever he (Griffin) puts me I’ll do the job,” Campbell-Gillard said.
“I’ve been playing some heavy minutes at the start of the year.
“The first 20 minutes it’s really frantic and blows me out a little bit.
“But it’s a different role that I’m playing now and I like it.
“Coming on after that 20 minute mark and staying on, I kind of go up another level and can stay there.
“I feel like this year I have been playing really good consistent footy, where as in previous years I’ve been up and down and I just want to keep getting better.”
The new role hasn’t deterred Penrith’s young enforcer from continuing his fearless charges and willingness to get into heavy collisions against some of the NRL’s biggest forwards, including one such hit on Sam Kasiano that saw the towering Bulldogs prop leave the field a few minutes later.
In fact Campbell-Gillard admits he is inspired to puts the needs of the team first through his aggressive approach to games, without thinking too much about the possible impacts such situations present.
“Hook’s (Griffin) motto is when you carry the ball you carry the team and I’ve really taken that on board this year to inspire the team to get on the front foot,” Campbell-Gillard said.
“If you think about it too much it will play on your mind.
“When I carry the ball I just think of the team and go forward.”
Reagan Campbell-Gillard photos: 77 Media
Despite winning eight of their last ten games including the last four games in succession, Campbell-Gillard says that while there is still a lot of improvement left in the Panthers, despite turning their season around from a 2 and 7 win / loss record, the team isn’t talking up their finals chances.
“There is still a lot of improvement (20-25 per cent) left in us. We are a bit frantic out there with good ball and not completing our sets,” Campbell-Gillard concedes.
“Again we got that win tonight and we have gone eight games of our last ten games which is pretty crucial as we’re trying to build each week as it comes.
“But we need to fine tune our skills and finishes and not look too far ahead with the finals talk.
“If we start looking too far forward towards the finals, the mind starts to wander and your football thoughts starts to become the need to play more frantic football so we’ll stick to the basics each week.
“Instead if we concentrate each week, we’ll play some really good football towards the back-end of this season and the rest will fall into place.”