This may seem weird to say given the Penrith Panthers have won six on the trot without him, but Apisai Koroisau is still the Panthers’ most important player.
Last night’s victory over the Newcastle Knights may have looked dominating on the scoreboard, but the contest itself was a lot closer than that score suggested.
While the game was played at a high tempo, and it’d be fair to say the Panthers could have won by more if they didn’t bomb a number of scoring opportunities, they didn’t roll over the plucky Newcastle side with ease.
And sure, it might seem somewhat redundant to anoint a ‘most important player’ in a team where all 17 members play their role each and every week, but the last fortnight has shown Penrith are a different beast with Koroisau on the park.
Mitchell Kenny does a fine job filling in, but there is just something missing in terms of the pace at which service is delivered and the crispness of where the balls are being thrown. That, in turn, impacts exactly how easily the Panthers’ attack is able to flow.
It takes a keen eye to realise it, but the Panthers have been a step slow the last fortnight. It’s hard to say it happened before that, but with a couple of forward packs in the Broncos and now Knights who have aimed up and tried to stick with them through the middle third, it’s been noticeable that Penrith just haven’t been on quite the same level, and the absence of Koroisau is why.
I’ll stop short of saying the men from the foot of the mountains need Koroisau back as a matter of urgency, because clearly they are still winning matches, but to win the premiership, they do need their hooker, who has quietly gone about his business to become one of the best in the game.
Always underrated, Koroisau’s impact on the Panthers was noticeable right throughout the 2020 season as he managed to provide a calming influence on Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai in the halves while setting up the forward pack to roll right over the opposition week in and week out.
The rule changes only made it easier for someone of Koroisau’s talent too, the quicker game suiting his running and darting style down to the ground.
Apart from the smooth service and danger running the footy, Koroisau also provided a solid third kicking option and a mountain of experience, which Penrith don’t have a heap of.
Again, they haven’t yet needed it this year, only coming close to being beaten by the Storm, although they were behind heading into halftime against Brisbane last week, but they will need it later in the season as this side looks to build on the heartbreak of their grand final appearance of last year.
While they don’t lose much defensively by playing Kenny in the hooking position, Koroisau averages among the most metres of any hooker in the competition (56 last year), but is also involved in more tries than you can poke a stick at through his passing, even if he isn’t often credited with the assist.
The other, and maybe most telling factor of Penrith’s need for Koroisau to be playing in all their big games and moments is the output of their forwards over the last fortnight.
Again, when a pack muscles up against them, it’s someone like Koroisau with his quick, direct and crisp service out of dummy half which can get the momentum of a game flipped. The role of the hooker in the modern game is critical, and the Panthers’ first-choice has it down to a fine art.
What we saw in last night’s game was the Panthers at times being caught flat-footed or over-running passes due to the split-second extra it was taking to receive the ball – and that’s all it is – a split second. But it’s noticeable when it happens over and over again.
Again, it’s not that Kenny played poorly – far from it. It’s just that Koroisau provides that something extra that, at the end of the day, will be the difference between Ivan Cleary’s side being a premiership contender or not.
The Panthers have so many talented players, many of them youthful. Whether it’s Brian To’o’s eye-watering 337 metres, or James Fisher-Harris stepping up time and time again to lead their pack or the ridiculous improvement of Jarome Luai over the last 12 months, the stories are everywhere at the foot of the mountains.
The stories suggesting this is a team destined for glory in October under their coach who has worked this team into what he wants it to be.
But that glory in October needs their first-choice dummy half on the park. Without him, beating the best of the best in the biggest moments of them all may prove one bridge too far for a Penrith team who at the moment, don’t know how to lose.