After being cruelly denied his own spot last year due to illness, Panthers prop Spencer Leniu is embracing a case of grand final deja vu as he looms as the big winner if Tevita Pangai jnr is ruled out of this year’s decider.
Pangai jnr is battling to overcome a knee injury in time to face the Rabbitohs on Sunday night and the ex-Brisbane forward was pulled from a planned media session on Monday.
Pangai jnr was seen hobbling around in a knee brace at Penrith’s Sunshine Coast base and is considered the most serious health concern for the Panthers, who have battled their way through the finals with a number of injuries, including to Moses Leota (calf), James Fisher-Harris (knee), Dylan Edwards (foot) and Brian To’o (ankle).
Leniu, 21, shapes as the likely go-to man for Ivan Cleary should Pangai jnr be ruled out.
Leniu played his first game in more than a month in the preliminary final win against the Storm, replacing Leota, who is expected to be fit for the grand final. Fisher-Harris declared his availability on Monday and he could be joined Leniu, who revealed an untimely case of Rhinovirus robbed him of a chance for a grand final spot last year.
“I was named to play in the preliminary [final last year] against the Rabbitohs and I got sick on the Monday and I wasn’t allowed to train with the boys,” Leniu said. “That kind of ruled me out. That was pretty hard to take. If I played that game maybe I would have played in the grand final as well.
“I didn’t feel like I was sick enough to not play, but I thought for the sake of the team I would get a COVID test. I didn’t want to give anything to the boys before a [preliminary] final. It was a hard pill to swallow at the time, definitely. Whether I’m in the team or not I’m going to support the boys 100 per cent.”
Leniu knocked back a number of approaches, including from Craig Bellamy and the Storm, to commit his future to the Panthers late last year. And he could be the Panthers’ x-factor after a head-turning 11 minutes last week in the grand final qualifier.