Whenever a team wins the NRL premiership, the victorious coach is invariably asked whether they can go back to back and they always say they’re confident of defending their title.
When the Panthers survived a nail-biter to beat South Sydney in last season’s grand final, Ivan Cleary was asked the obligatory question.
“I must say at this stage I couldn’t give a shit about next year,” was his brutally honest response.
He wasn’t being a smart-arse, it was just that after more than four decades as a player and coach of experiencing only defeat on grand final day, he was soaking up the thrill of holding a trophy aloft.
“I’m sure I will,” he continued. “I just want to savour this moment as long as we can. We’ve definitely done it the hard way but that suited us.”
There’s a reason why defending a title in the NRL is extremely rare – it’s an extremely tough task.
The Roosters of 2018-19 are the only team to have achieved the feat since the Broncos of 1992-93 (no the 1997-98 Brisbane side doesn’t count because they were done in separate competitions).
Another common occurrence after a premiership is for a champagne-soaked and sozzled executive from the winning team coming out with a bold declaration that the club was now set up to be a dynasty, heaping more unnecessary expectation on the premiers.
Penrith are as well placed as the Roosters of a few years ago to overcome the odds. The bookmakers certainly think so with PlayUp listing them as joint favourites alongside Melbourne.
With an average age of 24 when they triumphed in October, the squad is super young and their main core of players will remain youthful with Queensland forward Kurt Capewell one of their off-season departures.
The rest of their nucleus is either entering or in the midst of the prime years of their career, such as star halfback Nathan Cleary, his co-captain Isaah Yeo, five-eighth Jarome Luai, centre Stephen Crichton and key forwards Liam Martin and James Fisher-Harris.
They’ve also lost centres Matt Burton (Bulldogs) and Paul Momirovski (Roosters), and bench utility Tyrone May (Catalans) from their grand final line-up.
Crichton will revert to centre, Charlie Staines will come back into the side on the wing and young gun Izack Tago is likely to be the other centre. It’s a slight problem are but these days centre is the least valuable position, which can be filled by other players from all over the park.
Martin is a readymade edge-forward replacement for Capewell and May’s on-field contribution was limited while club officials will be happy they no longer have to worry about his off-field incidents after sacking him following his distasteful social media post during the grand final celebrations.
When it comes to clubs retaining premiership-winning teams in recent years, Penrith have emerged better than anyone.
They’ll lose a few more next year, with hooker Apisai Koroisau and second-rower Viliame Kikau already poached by the Wests Tigers and Canterbury, but there’s no NRL club with a better ability to regenerate talent than Penrith with their monster junior base blanketing Sydney’s west.
Cleary’s off-season shoulder surgery is naturally a concern but the club will not rush his return – even if he misses the first month of the new season it will hardly matter, his long-term recovery is more important than a few early-season results.
As for Ivan, after finally getting the monkey – or gorilla, as Wayne Bennett termed it – off his back, he will clearly “give a shit”.
He has the chance over the next few years to join the likes of Bennett, Trent Robinson and Craig Bellamy as multiple premiership-winners in the modern era.
As long as they don’t jinx it by declaring they’re on the verge of a dynasty, the Panthers are in a strong position to be the team to beat for the next few years.
They’ll have a couple of new faces bolstering depth – Sean O’Sullivan, who has bounced around the Roosters, Broncos and Warriors, will provide a back-up option for the halves, while former Bulldogs forward Chris Smith could be a handy pick-up, particularly when rep footy ravages the squad. Stephen Crichton’s brother, Christian, has also returned to the club after a stint at Canterbury to strengthen the outside backs.
Star on the rise
Charlie Staines has all the tools to be a strike weapon out wide but he lost his way last season in his second year in the top grade with Momirovski coming in at centre and Stephen Crichton taking his spot on the wing. With Momirovski returning to the Roosters and Crichton set to step back into the centres, there is an opportunity for Staines to re-establish himself on the wing, capitalising on the chances created inside by Penrith’s potent playmakers.
Who’s under the pump
Koroisau is the Panther with the most to lose in 2022 – he was unable to take part in the club’s premiership parade in November after not being vaccinated against COVID-19 and he is unlikely to be representing NSW again after he was fined for breaking biosecurity rules in camp last season. Young rake Mitch Kenny has re-signed until the end of 2024 and with Koroisau off to the Tigers next year, his outlook for this season is somewhat uncertain.
The easiest thing for bookmakers every year is to post the premiers as competition favourites, even though only the Roosters of 2019 have successfully defended their title in the NRL era. But the Panthers deserve to be the team to beat – they have retained their premiership-winning squad except for second-rower Capewell and centres Burton and Momirovski.
They won’t miss the finals and it would take a few unforeseen events for them to miss the top four with this squad – star halfback Cleary is on the mend after shoulder surgery and with so much of their attack centred around his playmaking, their title defence would be severely affected if he has any setbacks.
1. Dylan Edwards
2. Charlie Staines
3. Stephen Crichton
4. Izack Tago
5. Brian To’o
6. Jarome Luai
7. Nathan Cleary
8. Moses Leota
9. Apisai Koroisau
10. James Fisher-Harris
11. Viliame Kikau
12. Liam Martin
13. Isaah Yeo
14. Mitch Kenny
15. Spencer Leniu
16. Matt Eisenhuth
17. Scott Sorensen
Others: Eddie Blacker, Kurt Falls, J’maine Hopgood, Robert Jennings, Taylan May, Sean O’Sullivan, Lindsay Smith, Jaeman Salmon, Chris Smith, Christian Crichton