Another game, another Blues certainty succumbs to injury.
Michael Jennings was last night forced off with a shoulder problem which is likely to rule him out of State of Origin I.
In further bad news for NSW coach Ricky Stuart, Jennings came from the field in the 52nd minute of last night's loss to Melbourne. Penrith doctor David Abraham said the sternoclavicular joint injury left Jennings a ''touch and go'' proposition for the opening interstate encounter on May 23. Jennings, who couldn't lift his shoulder after the match, will have scans tomorrow.
''Hopefully it will settle down and he'll be able to play on Monday night against St George,'' Abraham said. ''I can't say for certain at the moment, we'll just have to see how he pulls up with this one because it's a fairly acute injury and sometimes these things can take a couple of weeks to settle down. If that's the case, then it's touch and go in terms of Origin.''
The Blues casualty ward is bulging, with other certain selections Kurt Gidley and Danny Buderus already ruled out. And to make matters worse, Panthers captain Luke Lewis is clearly playing on despite a bad ankle cork. The brains trust of Stuart and Bob Fulton now have just seven days to find 17 fit men they believe are capable of preventing a seventh straight series defeat.
Jennings appeared to be hampered by the shoulder complaint, which he initially injured in last Monday's loss to the Knights, for most of the match. As the game wore on he struggled to even pass the football and while he bravely played through the pain he eventually succumbed. He finished with four tackles, three missed tackles and a gain of 57 metres. It completes a wretched run for Jennings, who was also recently sanctioned for drinking while in the rehab group.
Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy admitted running constant traffic at Jennings was ''part of the plan''.
''Well, we watched Monday night's game, yeah,'' he said. ''We didn't know if he was 100 per cent or wasn't quite … We just wanted to send some runs down there and see just how bad his shoulder was. That's what you do when you know players may not be 100 per cent on the opposition side. You want to be testing them out.''
Panthers counterpart Ivan Cleary, when asked about the injury, was coy. ''Michael's fine, as far as I know,'' he said. ''I took him off the field.''
Pressed on why he did so, he offered only: ''The medical advice was he was fine to play. I took him off. You can take that how you want.''
Bellamy, a former NSW coach, said he felt for Stuart. However, Storm hooker Cameron Smith, also the Queensland captain, didn't have quite as much sympathy.
''Not really,'' he quipped. ''Obviously it's unfortunate the injuries at the moment the NSW camp are having. You'd like to play the strongest team possible when you come into Origin.
''You'd like to play against a very strong NSW team. If they have a couple of injury concerns, there's a lot of great players running around for NSW to pick from. Whoever is available, they'll make a very strong 17, there's no doubt about it.''
To make matters worse, the Storm's Maroon quartet of Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Dane Nielsen - as well as Maroon hopeful Justin O'Neill - were all in ominous form.
For a short time, a seeming mismatch was, in fact, some match. Penrith even had the audacity to lead Melbourne midway through the first half, despite being without their general and halfback, Luke Walsh. However, the Storm finished with eight tries to extend their unbeaten start to the season for six. Only the Eels are preventing the Panthers, on the wrong end of five losses, from sitting in spoon position.
MELBOURNE 44 (J O'Neill 3 W Chambers C Cronk M Duffie R Hinchcliffe R Hoffman tries C Smith 5 G Widdop goals) bt PENRITH 10 (J Mansour E Uaisele tries B Austin goal) at Centrebet Stadium. Referee: Steve Lyons, Henry Perenara. Crowd: 9,517.