Jem Nash reviews an outstanding 2021 season for the Panthers, which ended in their first premiership since 2003.
2021 Club RecordEmbed from Getty Images
Competition Points: 44
2021 Player AchievementsEmbed from Getty Images
Most Tries: Brian To’o 15
Most Points: Nathan Cleary 231
The Penrith Panthers began the season as one of the premiership favourites, ready to avenge their heartbreaking grand final loss to the Storm in 2020. They began the season on fire, winning their opening 12 games on the back of their competition best defence and exhilarating attack. Their season hit a roadblock during the State of Origin series, where their best players were in and out of the lineup, halting their momentum. They lost two in a row, getting back on the winner’s list for a few weeks before a big loss to the Storm with Nathan Cleary and a host of other key players out with injury. They slowly started to regain their form towards the end of the season, before a loss to the Rabbitohs in week one of the finals created another challenge. The next two weeks, they were forced into two gruelling, defensive battles, overcoming the Eels and Storm to set up a rematch against the Rabbitohs in the grand final. Tied at 8-8 with around 15 minutes remaining, a Stephen Crichton intercept put the Panthers up by six, before a late Bunnies try made it close in the dying stages, the Panthers managing to hold on for a 14-12 win and a long-awaited premiership.
While the Panthers were one of the favourites during preseason, the pressure was on the young side to back up their remarkable winning streak during the 2020 season. After the hot start, their challenges through the Origin period and ensuing injury troubles casted some doubt over whether they could make a deep finals run, and after the week one finals loss those doubts only grew. With a bunch of key members playing through injury, they showed their toughness over the next three weeks onto grand final glory.
The Panthers boasted stars right across the field, but it’s hard to go past their young star halfback Nathan Cleary. Either side of leading the Blues to a series victory, Cleary expertly led his team around the park with a cool head on his shoulders and his outstanding kicking game. His top game management was particularly on show during the grand final, his kicking game constantly trapping the Rabbitohs deep inside their own territory, not allowing them to make any ground. Cleary was well supported on the season by James Fisher-Harris who has well and truly established himself as one of the best props in the competition, while Isaah Yeo provided a great link in the middle of the field. Brian To’o was the team and the competition’s biggest metre eater while Dylan Edwards enjoyed a career-best year at fullback.
The rest of the competition will once again be chasing the Panthers next season, and while they will lose some important players, they should still have a good chance to go back to back. In a big blow, Dally M Centre of the Year Matt Burton has moved on, while Kurt Capewell, Paul Momirovski, Tevita Pangai Jr and Brent Naden are also gone. Tyrone May has also been released after the Panthers took a final stand following his latest off-season incident. They have signed Sean O’Sullivan to provide the team with extra depth in the halves, and with some exciting juniors still coming through the ranks, they should be able to cover the holes filled by the departures.
NothingButLeague Player of the Season – Nathan ClearyEmbed from Getty Images
Try Assists: 25
Kick Metres: 10,800