The Penrith Panthers sit at the top of the National Rugby League ladder after eighteen rounds, firming as Premiership favourites. Matt Pritchard takes a look at why this 2020 Penrith Panthers team is the best ever to represent the foot of the mountains.
On Friday night at Panthers Stadium, around 3,500 Penrith Panther fans were treated to a wonderful second-half display by their side in overcoming arch rivals Parramatta Eels 20-2.
They have now beaten fourteen of the fifteen NRL sides in 2020, with their last round clash against Canterbury Bulldogs likely to notch up the complete set.
Josh Mansour, heavily criticised over the past few years for being below his best, turned the game on it’s head at half-time with a spectacular dive in the corner to give the Panthers a slender lead. A relentless second-half ensued as a tiring, gallant Eels side held on for dear life.
With seventy career tries, Mansour now is just one short of Michael Jennings 71 tries to equal the sixth highest tryscorer in club history.
The resurrection of Sauce this year has coincided with this confident Panthers side which has taken the league by storm.
No Panther fan could have dreamt this team would win thirteen games on the trot and with that, be in the box seat to take out the minor premiership ahead of the two best teams this century, Melbourne Storm and the Sydney Roosters.
They are on track to equal the most number of victories in club history with the 2003 Premiership winning side (18) if they can defeat North Queensland Cowboys and Bulldogs in the final two rounds.
Penrith’s defence has been exceptional, especially last night with the Eels starved of attacking chances in their opponent’s half.
To concede on average twelve points a game, when you factor the speed of the game with the set restart rule change, puts this current side well ahead of the 1991 squad which only gave up 11.4 points per game in a slower paced era.
The once clunky attack appears to be well oiled with the spine of Dylan Edwards, Jarome Luai, Nathan Cleary and Api Koroisau. This side has improved their attack by eight points this season (25.7 to 17.2 in 2019) to be the fourth best the club has produced in the last thirty years.
Since coming into the competition in 1967, this has to be the best side to come out of the foot of the mountains.
1991 and 2003 Premiership Success
Rewind back to 1991, Penrith Panthers had just made their maiden Grand Final a year earlier where they were beaten by the Canberra Raiders.
Ron Willey had started the rebuild in 1988, guiding the side to playoffs in that season and a finals appearance in 1989, before Phil Gould took the reigns in 1990.
They were solid premiership contenders from the outset of 1991. A young Brad Fittler, combined with the established first grade players in Royce Simmons, Brandy Alexander, Steve Carter and Brad Izzard, gave the club it’s best chance in their 25th year to break through and win the title.
A few nerves on Grand Final Day saw them in the fight of their lives, before Mark Geyer’s sin bin inspired tries to Brad Izzard and a second to Royce Simmons, to take the premiership.
More recently in 2003, Penrith started off horribly with three losses from four, before stringing together seventeen wins in twenty matches and finishing minor premiers.
It was a side that boasted then twenty-four year old Rhys Wesser, the dynamic Preston Campbell and local junior Craig Gower as club captain. The hair bears in Joe Galuvao and Tony Puletua played on the fringes and Luke Priddis made up the spine.
That side conceded 22 points per game but were able to offset by scoring 28 per game.
Come Grand Final day and a wet ANZ Stadium, inspiration from Scott Sattler turned the tide in Penrith’s favour and a twelve year drought was ended. Priddis was named the Clive Churchill winner for best on field.
The current squad
A club labelled as being in crisis after the departure of Gould, the return of sacked coach Ivan Cleary, and the failure of the five year plan is still fresh in Panther fans minds.
There was so much talk about Penrith wanting to finish in the top four over the years, and quite possibly the journey to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’ had been neglected.
Coach Cleary in the presser on Friday night hinted that playmaker son Nathan had spent some time with successful AFL side Richmond Tigers during the off-season to get some tips about kicking.
It wouldn’t surprise me if they took a leaf out of the Tigers books to plan out a roadmap to success given their dominance in the AFL.
A concerted effort was made to work on two key on-field facets, defence and discipline.
Previous Penrith sides in the modern era were labelled as the most ill-disciplined side in the competition and their defence was no better, averaging around 20 points per game over the last decade.
The pre-season boot camp definitely helped overcome discipline issues, with a marked improvement in defence.
It’s the ability to focus and have the stamina to play for eighty minutes which is the biggest contributor to the side being in top spot. The Eels just had no way to compete in the second half after being put under fatigue in the opening forty.
The players behind the success
Nathan Cleary will get the biggest accolades as the chief playmaker in the side and rightly so.
It was a big statement in the Eels win, to anyone considering that Cleary shouldn’t be the Blues Origin halfback, when Mitch Moses’ kick late in the game had no purpose, with the Panthers number 7 next set kicking a 40/20 and effectively sealing the game.
It would be an injustice if Cleary didn’t take out the Dally M title, but made harder through the harsh six point deduction for his TikTok trial earlier in COVID lockdown.
However, one can’t underestimate Jarome Luai’s impact on the side.
He’s been a player with the potential, but maybe not the belief because of his inexperience. It also didn’t help that he was behind James Maloney as the preferred partner to Cleary over the last few years.
Despite the pressure applied by Matt Burton on his place in the starting side, Luai has been as effective as Cleary in his attack, defence and kicking game – with a little dash of flair needed in the halves.
On 2019 form, Dylan Edwards has simply turned around his issues at the back with kick returns and grown as a player.
He will never have the strength of James Tedesco at fullback, but his positioning and speed has seen his performance rise in 2020 as he averages 180 metres per game, 19 shy of Tedesco’s season average.
Quite possibly the best recruit of 2020 is Api Koroisau.
The difference from when he left the Panthers to go to Manly in 2016 is astonishing. Doing the little things right in defence helps. The things he does in attack, the decisions he makes from dummy half has given this side purpose.
The individual stories are wonderful.
Stephen Crichton is still a teenager living the dream and at the top of the tryscoring list. Charlie Staines despite 107 minutes of football has scored six tries, more than a lot of players will score in their entire careers.
Liam Martin, the boy from Temora, who plays above his weight each week and genuinely deserves his starting place ahead of ex-Shark Kurt Capewell.
Isaah Yeo, now in his seventh season of NRL is on the verge of Blues Origin selection with Victor Radley gone for the season. He’s quite possibly the captain in waiting with James Tamou’s future uncertain at the club.
We’ve known for years that Viliame Kikau is a freak. The tendency to use him predictably in the past has been changed up this year, to provide more impact in attack. This has been a welcome change.
Panther fans have known this for the last few years but the secret is out, James Fisher-Harris is the quiet achieve in the competition.
His ability to play from lock, to the front row and complete a full eighty minutes, makes his efforts feel like he should have played in the 1980’s when there was no interchange, let alone four players on the reserves bench. 110% effort each week making his one of the most valuable forwards in the competition.
The best from the foot of the mountains
So, what makes this team the best produced by the club?
Not only for their resilience, their club record winning streak, complemented with fine attack and defensive statistics; but a big change in their culture.
I have never seen in the history of the Penrith club the unity of the playing unit.
They obviously threw out the window Anthony Griffin’s approach, which clearly took over twelve months to undo.
This side feels valued, wanted and appreciated. From the veteran Sauce, to the flair of Luai, and the speed of Crichton, every player knows their role and support each other.
A genuine week-by-week game plan has been effective. The way of winning seems to be dynamic, with a constant of keeping sides scoreless in the first twenty.
They are genuine premiership contenders and genuinely deserve top spot despite the reduced COVID impacted season.
Should they be lucky to continue their success to Grand Final Day, this side will deserve to be crowned the best side in 2020.