There are a lot of similarities between the current Penrith Panthers machine and the Parramatta Eels sides of their halcyon days of the 1980s.
The Panthers are not only capable of defending their title this year, they can become the first team since the Eels in 1981-83 to win three straight premierships.
Parra back then had an outstanding crop of young talent including Peter Sterling and local juniors such as Brett Kenny, Steve Ella and Eric Grothe who were guided by experienced natural leaders like Bob O’Reilly, Steve Edge, Ray Price and Mick Cronin. Jack Gibson in his fur coat, the guru for all coaches to follow.
It’s hard to see a weakness in this Penrith team and it’s all by design.
Since 2017 they’ve been building a side brilliantly around Nathan Cleary as the centrepiece at halfback and we’ve seen whenever an older player has moved on, they’ve been replaced straight away with a “new and improved version”. Ivan Cleary and their football manager Matt Cameron deserve a ton of credit for the roster they’ve been able to assemble.
They’re a tough mob. They do not only all the one-percenters that us coaches rave about but the hard stuff like consistent line speed, winning the ruck and goal-line defence.
I think they’ve just taken over from Melbourne the past couple of seasons when it comes to being the benchmark for defence in the NRL. And their attack is outstanding too.
Five years ago you could see what they were trying to build. They brought in some old hard heads like James Tamou and then James Maloney to give their young crop a bit of a guiding hand.
And when those players were moved on, they had a readymade replacement that they had groomed for the role. Out goes Tamou and James Fisher-Harris steps in as the spearhead for their pack.
Josh Mansour was a representative winger a few years ago but they knew they had Brian To’o at the ready so he was brought in.
Same situation with Maloney, a clever five-eighth with a winning mentality but Jarome Luai was waiting in the wings and the transition was seamless.
We’re seeing it yet again this year with Kurt Capewell allowed to go to the Broncos and Liam Martin being more than capable of coming into the starting side at second row.
Izack Tago and Taylan May have rolled off the production line out wide this year and they’re going to lose a few more players next year, but their succession planning is so precise that when Api Koroisau goes to the Tigers, they’ve got Mitch Kenny as a first-grade hooker in waiting and with Viliame Kikau heading to Canterbury, they will have any number of young forwards coming through to reinforce their pack.
Going back to back is hard enough. A major factor helping Penrith is they haven’t had to worry about the World Club Challenge.
When you’ve got that on the calendar at the start of the year it means you have to bring forward your preparations by four weeks.
I remember back in 2002 when we were trying to defend our title at the Knights that we were strong for most of the season, just missed out on the minor premiership but we faded in the playoffs.
And then the salary cap starts to bite. Within a few years we had lost Ben Kennedy to Manly and Timana Tahu to Parra because we needed to clear space for younger guys coming through.
Penrith got a taste of having a heavy representation at Origin time last year and they’re even better prepared now.
They will have both their halves playing for NSW but they’ve got Sean O’Sullivan to slot straight into the No.7 jersey after getting a taste in the first three rounds and Jaeman Salmon to fill in for Luai at five-eighth.
Scott Sorensen can take over from Isaah Yeo at lock, they’ve got plenty of depth in the backs for To’o and maybe Stephen Crichton as well if he gets a run at centre with Latrell Mitchell looking like he will miss game one with his hamstring tear.
And they’ll have Dylan Edwards as a constant presence at fullback, piling up the metres, linking in when needed and organising the team in defence.
They come into this game on Friday night against Brisbane with their home ground the hardest in the NRL for an opposing team to come away with the two competition points. Penrith haven’t lost there since Canberra beat them in July, 2019. If they win this weekend it will be 20 consecutive games without tasting defeat. Awesome stuff.
And they’ve still got To’o and Moses Leota to come back into the team from a couple of long-term injuries.
This year they will have upwards of six State of Origin players which will give their team a huge amount of confidence in the run into the play-offs. And they will have a host of representatives involved in the World Cup campaign including Cleary, Luai (Australia or Samoa) and Yeo, which will add another level of experience to their squad in 2023.