As I write this, the bookies have got Panthers at more than $3 to beat Melbourne on Saturday. It must be the longest odds that have been offered for Penrith since 2019.
It would be easy to chalk this up to them facing a near-perfect Storm this weekend, but it’s more that we’re seeing a near-perfect storm of events.
Craig Bellamy’s side went down to Parramatta 22-10 in Round 24 and people suggested it was the match they needed to lose.
Compare that to Ivan Cleary’s boys squeaking past that same Eels side 8-6 on the weekend, leading people to say it was the match they deserved to lose.
Because something is amiss at the Riff. And it’s the wrong time of the year for that to be the case.
In their past two matches, since we started the finals, the Panthers have scored a grand total of 18 points, with a single try in each game meaning more than half those points have come from the kicking tee.
Compare that to the 676 points they amassed over the course of the regular season, an average of 28.17 points per game.
Now obviously the finals are the best of the best, meaning points should be harder to come by – which is probably best evidenced by the fact they may have only scored 18 points but Penrith have also only given up 22 at an average of 11 points a game, which is an improvement on their season mean of 11.9.
So maybe where things are particularly skew-whiff are in the intangibles. The team don’t look like Penrith.
The most boisterous – and seemingly most confident – man in rugby league, Jarome Luai, has been a church mouse by his standards the past month or so. I mean, after he made a crunching tackle on Ray Stone on Saturday night, which forced a turnover at a critical moment, Luai just smiled and hugged his teammates.
There’s less than 20 minutes on the clock, two points separate the teams, Luai makes a play that could decide the match and he just grins and has a bit of a cuddle? Where was the lip? Where was the screaming into the face of the man on the ground? At least give us a bit of a boogie, Romey!
Tevita Pangai Jr is a devastating ball runner and the leading offloader in the competition, making three in the game against the Eels alone, but I wonder if he’s upset the composition of a side that has been building together for years.
Where the Panthers would usually build pressure from Nathan Cleary’s pinpoint accurate boot forcing restarts, on the weekend they were going for a different tactic when in attacking position: just give it to Tevita.
The result was some nail-bitingly close runs at the line from the new kid in the pack but zero tries, while Parra won the forced drop-out count 4-2.
Pangai is one of the most potent attacking weapons in the game and with reports the Panthers were able to pick him up for the back end of the season at a cost of just $130K, landing him seemed like a shrewd piece of business.
But with such a short amount of time at the club, it appears rather than spend time integrating him into their structures, they’re just hoping all the talk of x-factor (apparently he’s got heaps of it, as if it’s something you can quantify) will give them more in attack.
I worry, instead, his addition will be a net loss, seeing them throw him the ball to charge at the line rather than do what has worked so well for them the past two seasons.
And speaking of going away from what has worked, we come to whatever the hell is going on in Ivan Cleary’s head.
Known as one of rugby league’s good guys – Phil Gould famously described him as “the sort of bloke you would let marry your daughter” – Ivan is seemingly having a go at playing the heel at the moment.
Yeah, he’s not very good at it.
We don’t need to rehash the whole Cleary vs Wayne Bennett stoush that played out over a series of leaks and pre and post-match press conferences two weeks ago, suffice to say Cleary came away worse off.
But rather than simply chalk that up as a learning experience and move on, Cleary decided the chip on his shoulder was worth keeping in place.
His post-match presser after the Parra win didn’t rate a mention, coming hot on the heels of Brad Arthur’s pointed comments about getting stiffed and just 24 hours after Des Hasler gave the kind of performance only Des can (I actually thought it was pretty tame by his standards but some journos were genuinely upset by the Manly mentor). But Ivan, who was just 80 minutes away from a second successive grand final, barely cracked a grin.
And perhaps the reason for that is because the win over Parramatta didn’t actually mean anything.
That sounds dismissive but the fact of the matter is Penrith are still a match away from where they need to be.
And, even then, anything short of victory consigns their entire season to the scrapheap.
While most teams can consider making a grand final – or even preliminary final – as a success, the Panthers either win the decider or their year will be a failure.
After falling short of the ultimate prize by just six points last year – in what was their first loss since Round 5 – there were fears that Cleary’s boys may suffer from some sort of second-year syndrome, particularly given this young squad had lost experienced campaigners such as James Tamou, Zane Tetevano and Josh Mansour.
But those concerns were emphatically put to bed as they shot out of the blocks to win their first 12 games on the trot, a run that only ended when a huge chunk of their team were missing due to State of Origin.
They may not have secured the minor premiership for a second-successive season but with just three losses in the regular season – two of which came during the Origin period – there’s an argument to be made this team is even better than their 2020 iteration.
Which is why it’s rings or bust for the Pennies.
And when a pass mark for your season is winning the premiership, as September progresses things can start to get stressful – and stress is a silent killer.
It’s an odd situation for them to be in, given perhaps the bedrock of their success has been the joy at the heart of it. A team of local kids who are ultimately just mates that love playing footy together.
It should be the opposite of stress-inducing. And it’s the key to them achieving their ultimate goal.
Get back to what works.
Tell Jarome to strut. Pass TPJ the ball, sure, but don’t do it on the last tackle. Give Ivan a bit of a tickle before he faces the cameras.
Let go of the stress and rediscover the joy. Because a dour Penrith side will be no match for Craig Bellamy’s boys this weekend.