Worried Panthers officials will closely monitor Bryce Cartwright’s welfare and concede the troubled star is no certainty to face the Wests Tigers, as teammates closed ranks around him on Wednesday.
Two days after Penrith boss Phil Gould said allegations that Cartwright used a third party to pay $50,000 for an ex-girlfriend to have an abortion last year had hit the player “like a bolt of lightning”, the 22-year-old trained with Anthony Griffin’s squad at the Panthers Academy.
Penrith’s most experienced players were directed not to comment on the Cartwright situation when facing the media afterwards, and Fairfax Media has been told the Panthers have considered sitting the City representative out of the clash at Campbelltown on Sunday given his fragile mental state.
It is the last thing the early-season premiership favourites need after a round-one pasting at the hands of St George Illawarra, but Anthony Griffin will not risk Cartwright if he is not in the right mindset – even considering the huge challenge posed by a James Tedesco-inspired Tigers.
“We’re still monitoring Bryce as to whether he’s going to be in a fit condition to play on the weekend,” Gould said on the Channel Nine Six Tackles podcast.
“We’ll leave that up to the doctors and the welfare staff. He’s training with the team and we’re just trying to get on with life at the moment.”
Skipper Matt Moylan offered a blunt “I’m not talking about it” when asked about the extra attention on the club after the Cartwright claims, while Trent Merrin, Peter Wallace and Isaah Yeo also dead-batted similar questions.
“I’ve got no comment on that and things have been looked after away from here, and I’ve got total faith in the people around him,” Merrin said.
Yeo added: “He’s got the support of all the players in the club.”
The Panthers have named Sitaleki Akauola as part of their extended 21-man squad and he shapes as a logical replacement for Cartwright if the Panthers err on the side of caution with the man touted for State of Origin honours, although Wallace was confident Cartwright would play.
Cartwright missed a team-high eight tackles, according to Champion Data, in the Panthers’ shoddy defensive effort against the Dragons, and suddenly the team that had support from a number of experts to win the competition is now arguably its most scrutinised.
“It’s round one and all we can take is a lesson in what not to do,” Merrin said of the opening-weekend drubbing. “It’s a long season and the best thing we can take from it is a lesson learnt.
“Everyone gets excited at the start of the year, there’s a lot of emotion, but once you get into the season it’s a long year.”
The Panthers have plummeted to sixth favourite for the NRL title with bookmakers after one round, having shared top billing with the Storm before a ball was kicked.
“I’d say everyone has got a part to play in [our defence], but it’s probably something we’ve got to fix going forward,” Moylan said. “It’s an area I’m still trying to grow into as a leader and improve each week and make sure we’re ready to go come game time.”