They did just enough to get the job done in matches against the Titans and Cowboys.
But on Saturday night the Panthers unleashed both barrels against the Sea Eagles to stamp themselves as genuine contenders for the premiership.
This is as well as the Panthers have played since 2014. A season where, despite a massive injury toll, Jamie Soward and Matt Moylan led them to an unlikely preliminary final, that they would narrowly lose. Surprise, surprise it is the same man at the helm in Ivan Cleary who arguably should never have been let go.
The Panthers are exhibiting all those same hallmarks that they did in 2014. Everybody is doing their job, and they have found the consistency that alluded them in Cleary Sr’s absence. In years gone by they have managed finals appearances and wins on some brilliance, and the ability to stage comebacks.
They have been incredibly entertaining to watch, but you never got the sense that they could go all the way.
This season is different. They have those traits you associate with the sides that are always there at the business end of the season. The traits you associate with the Roosters and Storm. They beat the teams below them. They compete every week. Everyone knows their role.
They win ugly, but they can also completely outclass their opponent as they did against Manly on the weekend. They have beaten the Storm, and the Roosters, pushed the Eels all the way, and only have that loss along with a draw that blemishes their record.
They have a hard nosed pack that also has some skill. They have enough depth there to loan Jack Hetherington to the Warriors. With what he has brought to them, it’s a wonder he couldn’t get a look in at the Panthers. They still have Kurt Capewell to come back too.
They bought a hooker to give them another dimension. Dylan Edwards works as hard as any player, and is fit as they come, even without him they remain dangerous. Caleb Aekins typifies their squad, he comes in and does his job. He isn’t Dylan Edwards but he is safe and consistent.
They have a backline that just hums. Steve Crichton is the star, but everyone else threatens. Charlie Staines has six tries in less than a game and a half. Brent Naden couldn’t get a look in after the resumption but since looks unstoppable.
Josh Mansour does the mountain of work he has always done, even if he isn’t the finisher he once was. They have Brian To’o and Dean Whare to come back, in what will be a major dilemma for Ivan Cleary. Trying to get the balance of experience in his backline just right.
They have a five-eighth with more try assists than anyone else in his team, but who barely rates a mention next to their number seven. Nathan Cleary has gone to another level this season. But it is no surprise to anyone who has watched him since his debut in 2016.
This kid has always had talent, and at times dragged his team into contention both in matches and over the course of a season. James Maloney was a wonderful acquisition for the Panthers but took the reins of the team away from Cleary.
With him gone, the team now belongs to Nathan and it shows. He has the hallmarks of all the champion players and playmakers of our game. It is not in the stats, but the onee percenters. Cleary recognises what the team needs every week, and his responsibility to deliver. It is as simple as a big tackle one week, a chase on a kick, an individual try. Against the Sea Eagles it was a 40/20, a try of his own, and a couple of assists.
The reason Brad Fittler has picked him in Origin because of his consistency. He doesn’t let anyone down. He is strong in defence and plays his role. Fitler has resisted the urge to pick some players in better form to remain loyal to a player he knows has what Origin takes.
Fittler is set to reap the benefits this series with Cleary more confident as a dominant playmaker without Maloney.
Phil Gould stepping away from the Panthers has also done the Panthers some favours. This is the club that Gus built, and Panthers fans should be in no doubt about it. He saved the club from the brink of financial ruin, and while they haven’t won a premiership they have acquired the tools to do so since he came onboard in 2011.
He put the systems in place with junior development and management to facilitate the success the Panthers now enjoy. This is one of the youngest squads in the NRL, but it finds itself at the top of the table. Their player retention has also improved.
But it was time for Gus to go. Whatever happened with him and Ivan Cleary is immaterial. The Panthers have the coach they want, and one who Gould endorsed in the first place to lead this club to a premiership.
The spotlight became intense on Penrith with Gould at the Panthers, polarising as a figurehead and ever present in the media.
Every move, every failure was a reflection on him, and proof that his “five-year plan” wasn’t working. With his stepping aside, the Panthers have been free of the scrutiny Gould tends to attract from corners of the media.
The Panthers are better poised than ever to break a 17-year premiership drought. The Roosters have to come down eventually. The Storm are always tough to beat, but you sense that displaced from their home they can’t get to their best.
The Raiders are without their general in Josh Hodgson. The Knights and Rabbitohs are inconsistent at best.
It is their neighbours in the west, the Eels that can probably boast to be their nearest rivals. They have been waiting far longer, and are also at the right end of the ladder heading into the run home. They are close enough if talented enough, and if they keep playing at Bankwest they will keep the points coming.
They have a fanbase even more starved of success than the Panthers. Since their fairytale run of 2009, they have just one finals win. Their success is well overdue.
This season is like no other, and with changes so rapidly occurring in our day to day lives, who knows what the next 14 weeks of this competition will bring. The Panthers though looked poised to finally capitalise on years of hard work, and bring a trophy to the foot of the mountains.
If it’s not this year, it’s coming very soon to a club that has all the pieces of the puzzle.