It’s been a long while coming, but the Penrith Panthers finally look like a premiership threat again.
I’ve been hesitant to call it too early in the past few weeks, but after Thursday night’s strong-armed victory over South Sydney in the Round 7 opener the mountain men don’t look far away from challenging the top sides once more.
They have spent some years in the doldrums despite their immense talent, but now it finally looks like they have the right mix of junior talent that the club have nurtured and built on and experience across the park to pose more than a small chance.
Of course catching the Sydney Roosters and Parramatta Eels, who are the undoubted competition favourites to this point, will pose a challenge, but the Panthers, Newcastle Knights, Melbourne Storm and – if they can get back to full strength – Manly Sea Eagles and Canberra Raiders, appear to be in the next group of sides who are within striking distance.
And while a victory over South Sydney may not be the best guide given the struggles Wayne Bennett’s side have faced – and let’s be real, they are struggles – Penrith have been superb since coming out of lockdown.
For the time being they sit outright top of the table with five wins and a draw to their name. Since returning to play they’ve drawn with Newcastle and beaten the Warriors, Storm and Rabbitohs, with a loss to the Eels in between after having pushed one of the competition favourites all the way to the finish line.
It’s impressive by any stretch of the imagination, but when their Round 1 win over the Sydney Roosters is added in they look like a team that’s going to be more than just a potential roadblock come September and October.
And it’s their situation in the halves that should be taking all the limelight.
Sure, they have talent all the way across the park and their forward pack heralds some of the most underrated big boppers in the competition, but it’s Nathan Cleary’s team.
That right there is the sentence that was always going to and will continue to define what the Panthers can make of this season.
For the last couple of years Cleary has been forced to play almost second fiddle to James Maloney, and at times he has looked barely apt in doing so. Too often Cleary and Maloney seemingly had no structure, no dominant half and very little in the way of a running game or creative.
Now, we fast-forward to Round 7 in the new season without the French-departed Maloney and suddenly Cleary is leading this team around the park like he’s a veteran in his 30s and not just a kid who is still only 22 years of age with the NRL at his feet.
While Jarome Luai also played well in the win over Souths, it was Cleary who interestingly ran the ball a lot, taking the line on at every opportunity but also kicking for almost 600 metres throughout the contest.
That backs up his season average, which stood at almost 500 kicking metres per game before Thursday’s clash. Seemingly, having Luai – who comes up with the odd moment of brilliance but is still finding his feet in first grade – playing next to him allows Cleary to go work and control the side.
He is backed up by a successful spine in Penrith product Dylan Edwards at the back, who continues to go from strength to strength and ran for 172 metres against the Rabbitohs, and a man who could be the signing of the year, Apisai Koroisau, who made 52 tackles and played excellently out of dummy half.
So in the Penrith spine there’s this excellent mix of young Penrith talent out of their enormous junior nursery, which somehow hasn’t produced a premiership for nearly 20 years, and a veteran hooker who is known for his spark and leadership.
It’s a superb combination, with the platform being laid in the middle third by a stable of players who have that same mix of youth and experience, Penrith or not.
Players like Isaah Yeo (25), James Fisher-Harris (24) and Liam Martin (23) have been simply outstanding in laying the platform for Penrith. Yeo and Martin are both Penrith juniors, while Fisher-Harris hails out of New Zealand but has been with the Panthers since 2013 when he played SG Ball at the club.
None of that trio are heralded as superstars, and at their age it’s not a surprise, but fans of almost every other club in the competition would have no problem if one of them happened to be one of their big signings in the near future.
Meanwhile, players like James Tamou were all but written off but have made a resurgence, with Ivan Cleary seemingly getting the best out of him.
Then there are the outside backs. Brian To’o and Stephen Crichton are the headline names, aged just 21 and 19 respectively.
Penrith seem to have a way of sneaking under the radar, and when you run through their team on paper at least, with the average age and experience, it’s little surprise that’s what they are doing once again in 2020.
And yet they lead the competition with no signs of slowing down. For a team supposedly going to battle to make the eight – and I wouldn’t have been alone in writing that during the preseason – they could well be the first team with a finals spot all but secured given their upcoming draw features the Tigers, Sharks, Cowboys and Titans in the next four weeks. They are all games in which Penrith will be favourites.
And while, yes, Souths have urgent work to do in terms of the number of errors they are making as well as the speed they play their footy at in the middle third, nothing can be taken away from Penrith and what they are building.
The junior base at Penrith has always been noted as ridiculously strong, but it looks like they finally have held onto the right players to make something special happen.
And if they do, it will truly be a Penrith victory. One for the fans, one of the administrators who have put time and effort into the junior system, and one for the players who have stuck loyal at the foot of the mountains.
One for the true believers of Penrith. It’s coming. It might not be this year, but it’s coming.
The pieces to hit the go button are finally in place at the foot of the mountains.