If you’re looking for the most improved player in the NRL this year, the Panthers’ home qualifying final against the Roosters this evening will be must-watch television.
The minor premiers, who have won 15 straight to close the season and are closing in on the longest winning streak in NRL history, have been phenomenal right across the paddock this year.
There has barely been a bad moment. The only other teams who have won 15 straight this century are the Storm in 2012 and Sharks in 2016, and we all know how they ended: premierships.
Of course, the Bulldogs also did it (and made it to 18) in 2002, but that didn’t finish quite so well.
So when you start throwing numbers around like that, it’s clear to see why Penrith are building something special.
In fact, the only glaring weakness in their squad would appear to be a lack of big-game and finals experience, although that is somewhat thrown out by Nathan Cleary’s Origin run, Apisai Koroisau’s finals experience and other forwards like James Fisher-Harris, who has played representative footy.
While all those players will potentially be a deciding factor in tonight’s qualifying final against the Roosters, it’s Jarome Luai who will look to continue his stellar season and buy his team a week off.
When looking for differences between the nearly-but-not-good-enough Panthers of 2019 and the minor premiers of 2020, there are two key determining factors.
One is Koroisau joining the pack of Penrith juniors to provide a shining light at hooker, and the other is the impact of Luai. It’s his game, replacing the departed James Maloney, which has inspired Penrith to new heights.
Statistics don’t always tell the whole story, but they do tell a large chunk of it here. Luai has been absolutely everywhere for the Panthers.
While his fitness to play all 20 games without a break is something to be marvelled at, he has seven tries and 21 assists to be right at the top of the charts for try involvements, while he has 13 forced drop outs, 17 line break assists, 14 offloads and, for a half, a ridiculous average of 67 metres per game.
There are games this year when you look at his stat line and wonder if he was playing in the forwards. His 183 metres against the Sea Eagles in Round 12 takes the cake, but in half of all games he has cracked triple figures running the ball.
These are stats that just aren’t an everyday occurrence. Heck, they aren’t an every season occurrence anywhere in the competition. Luai has been special, but he has been able to sit in the background behind his more fancied teammates and simply do the job for the mountain men.
His kicking game hasn’t been bad either, but it’s the ball running, passing and offloading that has allowed Nathan Cleary to soak up all the applause and credit as a very real likelihood of taking out the Dally M Medal when that is awarded in a few weeks prior to grand final day.
That is the part of the story Luai’s stats won’t tell. The control he plays with is beyond his years, and has improved players around him.
Sure, credit needs to go to coach Ivan Cleary, and the forwards who have all aimed up, but with Luai running the ball and constantly demanding defence, it has created time and space for Cleary to work with Koroisau and Dylan Edwards, who has also improved out of sight and could be a candidate for that award alongside Luai.
Compare that to the 2019 version of the Panthers, where Maloney and Cleary struggled enormously to work as a combination, and it stagnated the Panthers’ attack from start to finish, and it’s like chalk and cheese.
Interestingly, Luai’s style of footy could suit playing the Roosters even more than some other sides. His running and ability to break a game open when working with Koroisau and the forward pack could be pivotal in a game that may well be low-scoring given the defensive work of their opposition that is normally on display.
When they arrive at the foot of the mountains this evening, though, the Roosters will have an Everest-sized challenge on their plate.
Not just Luai, but their forwards will have to aim up, their kicking game must be spectacular, and the combination of Freddy Lussick and Lachlan Lam will have to be better than it has been at any point this season.
The battle of the hookers looks as if it will be the single biggest difference between the two sides.
That is until you remember the Roosters had their doors blown out last week, conceding more points in a single game than any other team this season. Ironically, their demolition of the Broncos way back when sits second on that list.
Plenty has been made of that performance, and while the Roosters aren’t a mentally weak side, recovering from a performance like that takes any side time, no matter how good.
Qualifying finals are sometimes viewed as not important in comparison to elimination finals, but this year, that couldn’t be any further from the truth.
No bye rounds, fatigue and injuries are gripping the competition. The winner of this year’s grand final will win a qualifying final and secure a week off.
Having to play next week will simply be a recipe for a preliminary final knockout.
Don’t be surprised if, come the end of this evening’s game, Jarome Luai is a huge part of the reason why Penrith’s odds for the premiership are cut in half before the side can put their feet up next week and watch the teams they might face in Week 3 bash each other up for 80 minutes.
The finals are finally here.