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Phil Gould: How the Panthers won the grand final

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26th October, 2020
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The Roar welcomes guest columnist Phil Gould to bring his unique take on the grand final.

How does a team rise to the occasion, as the Penrith Panthers did, to win a grand final?

Victory on the biggest stage of all doesn’t happen by accident: Penrith’s triumph in the NRL grand final was the result of years of careful planning and built on the back of a powerful foundation built by me when I arrived at the club and fixed everything that was wrong.

Without the incredibly hard work done by a committed person behind the scenes, my vision might never have come to fruition. But on Sunday night, Ivan Cleary and his players saw my work pay off in spades.

There are those who will quibble about the Panthers’ victory, and say there is an asterisk beside this year’s premiership.

The pandemic changed the nature of the competition, they’ll say. The shortened season means it’s not a “complete” victory, they’ll say.

Their opponents were weakened by having to relocate for the year, they’ll say.

Technically, when the grand final ended, they were behind on the scoreboard, they’ll say.

This is all petty nitpicking, however, and overlooks some key points:

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  1. As Cam Smith noted, had the game gone another two minutes, anything might have happened. The Panthers would, in the view of all good judges, definitely have scored again, making the score 26-26. After that, a field goal would have settled the matter. Since when do we decide that a team has “lost”, when we know full well that if the game lasted longer than eighty minutes they would have won?
  2. The Panthers, it is generally agreed, were very unlucky. All three of the Storm’s first-half tries would, if something different had happened, not have been scored. It would be a brave man indeed who declared the result of a match based on something as ephemeral as luck.
  3. On at least a dozen occasions, I have seen Penrith come back from huge deficits to win. There is no reason to suppose that this did not happen again on Sunday night.
Viliame Kikau of the Panthers looks on

Someone should tell the Panthers they won the big one. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

All arguments aside, the fact is, Penrith were the best team all season, and on grand final night they proved what a skilled and courageous side they are.

If anything this year’s win is more meaningful than other years, as the Panthers had to overcome the stresses of lockdown life, as well as a formidable final opponent in Melbourne. On top of all that, to emerge as premiers despite scoring fewer points than their opposition represents a colossal achievement.

The win was set up in the first half, when Penrith were completely dominant. Penrith dominated every aspect of the game: attack, defence, tactical kicking, physical attractiveness and working-class solidarity.

The Storm at no point had any answers to the Panthers’ perfectly-executed game plan. In the end they had to resort to catching passes from Penrith players to score, so impossible did they find it to score off their own.

The intercept, as Warren Ryan always said, is the coward’s way: you could tell from the Melbourne players’ faces that they were ashamed to have scored in this manner.

Cameron Smith of the Storm celebrates

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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Self-belief was the key in that first half: every time the Storm scored, you could see the Panthers’ belief growing stronger and stronger. They knew, as I did, that Melbourne’s over-eagerness to constantly register “points” betrayed a deep insecurity in the men from the south.

By contrast, Penrith’s confidence in its plan and its system was that unshakeable that they didn’t need to compensate for their shortcomings by crossing the opposition line: they knew that they were better than cheap tricks of that nature. For them, it was enough to know that they were the better team, and that history would record them as such.

The greatest example of the Panthers’ attitude was Viliame Kikau. I’ve never seen him as focused and intense as he was on Sunday night, and that focus showed in his performance.

His willingness to make the big plays, to take the game up to the opposition, was clear in every knock-on he made – only someone who is one hundred percent up for the fight will have the courage to commit the quantity and quality of handling errors that Kikau did for his team.

In the second half, the plan came to fruition and the Panthers shut their cunning trap on the Storm. After Ryan Papenhuyzen’s long-range try – in which the Melbourne fullback ran frantically, as if fleeing his own self-doubt – the Storm was up 26-0, and right where the Panthers wanted them.

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Through a series of artfully-constructed set plays the rightful premiers simply took Craig Bellamy’s men apart. As they piled on try after try through strong running, precision kicking and superb passing, their opponents wilted, scuttling one by one to the sin bin in sheer terror of the thrashing they were receiving on-field.

Nathan Cleary in action against the Melbourne Storm

Nathan Cleary. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Again, it’s worth mentioning that this was precisely the plan that was put into place several years ago by me. It could not have been executed any better.

When the full-time siren went, and it became clear that the mountain had been scaled, that Penrith actually were 2020 premiers, I am not ashamed to say I broke down and cried.

This was the fulfilment of a beautiful dream, and the boys deserved to soak up every second of the glory they had earned. To the Storm’s credit, they were gracious in defeat and Cam Smith gave a wonderful concession speech.

It’s rare in sport to see a perfect performance, but the Panthers’ effort on Sunday night was as close as you’ll ever get.

In decades to come, rugby league fans will say: I was there the night the Penrith Panthers achieved their greatest ever moral victory. For the players, the coach, the support staff, and most of all, for me, this was the ultimate.