With 13 straight wins, only one loss since the resumption, leading all the running and possession statistics, and key players in career-best form, 2020 has been the Panthers’ year so far.
Although, as the business end of the season approaches, I have taken a look at how their season has unfolded compared to the real contenders of the competition, while also drawing comparisons to how sides in a similar position have fared historically.
Here are four reasons why Penrith won’t be premiers in 2020.
1. They have peaked too early
The timing of Penrith’s run is ominous. It is a cliche to think a team needs to lose a game to learn lessons for the big games, but that loss is going to come at the worst possible time for the Panthers.
In fairness, it is hard to see Penrith being defeated in their next two matches, against the struggling Cowboys and Bulldogs – nor do I see them losing their first finals match if the Eels hang on to fourth.
It will be in that preliminary final where they will face either Melbourne or the Roosters – if all goes to plan – that will be their biggest test.
History has told us that teams with near-perfect regular season win-loss ratios don’t get the premiership handed to them.
The season’s minor premiers have only lifted the trophy seven times in the last 21 seasons (yes Penrith fans, you were one of them in 2003).
The best comparison for Penrith is Cronulla of 2016. The Sharks won 15 straight that year, however, they did it in the first half of the season.
They ended up losing five of their last six regular-season matches, including a 20-point thumping from the Storm in the battle for minor premiership. The loss spurred them on and the porch light is off.
In fact, since 2004, the Storm of 2012 and 2017 are the only team to win all games from Round 23 onwards.
Sometimes a loss is the wake-up call a team needs and Penrith have peaked too early this year.
2. They haven’t tested themselves against the top teams
Penrith’s draw since the resumption had them only face off against two top-eight teams twice – the Sharks and the Eels – while only playing the Raiders, Storm and Roosters once.
Yes, they beat all the top teams, however this was when the sides were far from their season-best.
Their win against the Roosters in Round 1 was when the Tricolours just came back from a long tour of Europe, coupled with the first outing for a new halves combo.
In Round 6, the Storm came to Campbelltown after a long bus trip from Albury, with their future uncertain as a result of COVID outbreaks.
Penrith lost to Parramatta when they were running hot. It has been widely recognised that the Eels are a long way off the team they were at the start of the season, particularly in attack. That was evident last week when the Panthers held them scoreless to win 20-2.
Interesting to note from their 13-game winning streak, Penrith have only had to overcome five teams in the top eight (Cronulla sat ninth when they beat them 56-24).
Meanwhile, Melbourne has played three top-eight teams in the last five weeks, and by season’s end the Roosters would have played five top-eight teams in their final seven weeks.
The Storm and Roosters have also faced off twice, and both of those sides have also come against the Raiders on two occasions as well.
Penrith will finish the season having played two top-eight teams in their last seven weeks. It will be tough for them to get up for the intensity and pressure against the big teams come finals.
3. They have not suffered from travel fatigue
The Panthers have had a very lucky draw, where they didn’t have to fly-in, fly-out until Round 11 against Gold Coast. In fact, their opening ten matches were played at four venues within an hour from Penrith.
They haven’t been convincing winners when travelling interstate either, with scrappy wins against the Broncos and Titans. The concern – that goes for every team – is if they face Melbourne in Queensland.
To see the toll travel can have on a team, look at Canberra, who struggled in their opening games from resumption, winning three of their first six matches.
Since returning to their GIO Stadium home, the Green Machine have won eight of their last 11 – with all three losses conceded against the top four teams.
With a road trip down to Canberra, a charter flight to the Sunshine Coast or even a long drive to the Hunter, Penrith’s season might have been a different story.
4. They lack finals experience
Teams who have dominated the regular season often fall apart at finals, such as Parramatta in 2005, the Dragons in ’09, Canberra in ’16 – just to name a few.
For Penrith, only Josh Mansour, James Tamou and Api Koroisau have progressed further than the second week of the finals – the latter two winning the premiership in 2015 and 2014 respectively.
Ivan Cleary has only won five of his 12 finals appearances as a coach and this is his first finals series since 2014, when Penrith fell to the Bulldogs in the grand final qualifier.
Melbourne, for their part, have just three players out of their best 17 without finals experience, while the Chooks only have three players without a premiership ring – including Josh Morris.
Don’t forget the Raiders, who haev 12 fit players backing up from last year’s grand final, a coach who has won it all (minus a World Cup), and new recruits in Curtis Scott (2017 premiership winner) and George Williams (two-time Super League champ).
Penrith lacks the experience required to run deep.
The Panthers’ first week of the finals will be their toughest match since Canberra almost two months ago – it could even be Canberra again. If they do progress, the challenge is even more daunting when they will face the Roosters or Storm.
There are four teams that can win this competition and Penrith are one of them. I hope they prove me wrong and cap off their stellar season, but right now I’m more confident to put my money on them next year.