It’s fairly common knowledge at this point that the NRL season is looking like a two-horse race, with last year’s grand finalists leaps and bounds ahead of every other side.
While the Melbourne Storm have turned their attack into a fearsome juggernaut which will strike fear into the hearts of any opposition standing in their way, Wednesday night’s Origin mauling over the Queensland Maroons may give the New South Wales Penrith Panthers contingent the kick they need to continue with their own incredible first half of the season.
Playing mid-season representative rugby league can work in either wonderful or dreadful ways, and while there is still two games of this series to go, the fact five Panthers (with four playing big roles) were among the Blues who put 50 points on Queensland two days ago is going to be enormous for the men at the foot of the mountains.
The Panthers don’t appear to be a confidence team at the heart of their performances, but it certainly helps, and winning is a habit. It can be infectious at any level of sport.
While Penrith lost to the Wests Tigers last week without their State of Origin stars, and might do so again tonight against the Cronulla Sharks with it being rumoured only Apisai Koroisau and Liam Martin will return to the side out of the seven who missed last week, the long-term benefits will outweigh the short-term form trough.
One of the only real question marks hanging over Ivan Cleary’s side coming into the 2021 season was their ability in big games when the pressure was on playing against the best.
Sure, Queensland may not be currently “the best” and on paper, coming up against the Storm would probably be a tougher challenge, particularly given the way the Maroons played on Wednesday, but it doesn’t mean it’s not critical.
You see, New South Wales lose Wednesday’s Game 1 in Townsville and not only do they probably go on to lose the series in straight sets at Lang Park in a few weeks, but Penrith’s stars go back to club level with another big game lost.
The impact of losing a grand final can never be underestimated, particularly when it’s likely that, should they make the next one, the opposition on the other side of the park will be wearing the same colours. There is little doubt that is the collision course the NRL and Penrith are on once again this year.
It’s currently almost impossible to see any other sides, such as the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Parramatta Eels or Sydney Roosters making the grand final. They simply aren’t in the same ball park.
And so, provided we get to that rematch, the Panthers have a lot of demons to put behind them. Wednesday night would have helped to move on from some of them though.
Their key man is, without a doubt, Nathan Cleary. Before Wednesday night though, he had never put together an excellent performance in a big game. He had failed in the Origin arena, had a dismal grand final last year and frankly wasn’t all that good during the finals series.
Proving that he can actually do it will give him untold confidence to go out there and play his game during this year’s finals series.
Not only did Cleary play superbly, but Isaah Yeo had his best game under the pump, while Brian To’o and Jarome Luai were simply phenomenal.
You’d go as far as to say all three of the key Penrith men – Cleary, To’o and Luai – were in the top five players on ground. That doesn’t just happen, and it shows that while the atmosphere at Penrith this season is relaxed and confident, that atmosphere is now one which has the maturity and skill to transfer onto the big stage.
Origin is the biggest spectacle this game has to offer, no matter the quality of Queensland. You only have to cast the mind back to the end of last year to know exactly how well Queensland can play with a side which is unheralded.
Sure, this time there was no Wayne Bennett guiding things from the coaches box, but even he wouldn’t have been able to stop the New South Wales onslaught.
The other key to come out of Origin was the way all three defended. Queensland may not have been able to throw the kitchen sink at them, but Cleary, Luai and To’o, as well as Yeo, all defended superbly, while Liam Martin didn’t take a back seat from the bench either.
Given the way the Storm are playing, running up almost 35 points per game this season and on an absolute tear over the last ten weeks, defence will have to be paramount for the Panthers. And frankly, it wouldn’t matter if it’s not the Storm, because all of the Eels, Roosters and Rabbitohs can put up big points in a hurry.
But given defence also let Penrith down in last year’s decider, it’s just another monkey off the back in terms of being able to do it on the big stage.
The confidence they take back to club level is going to rub off on their teammates, make no mistake about it.
It must be acknowledged there are still two matches to go in this series, but it’s hard to see the Blues losing the series from here, which will only give those Penrith players another boost, particularly if they really have to fight and scrap in one of those games.
Representative football in the middle of the season doesn’t always seem the best alternative, but if the Panthers are raising the Provan-Summons trophy on the first Sunday in October this year, they can look back to a fateful Wednesday night in Townsville as a key part of the reason why.