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Opinion

Can your NRL club win the title if they're not the Panthers? Call me delusional, but...

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23rd May, 2022
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Having had a look at the bottom half of the NRL table last week, pulling apart just who is likely to end up with the wooden spoon, this week it’s fitting to ask who is going to be our premiers come October 2.

Penrith. It’s going to be Penrith.

At least, that’s what the smart money says as we head into Round 12 – more or less the halfway point of the season – with the Panthers four points clear at the top of the table, having only suffered the one loss for 2022.

Any fears last year’s titlists would suffer a premiership hangover have been unfounded, with the loss of the likes of Matt Burton, Kurt Capewell, Tyrone May and Brent Naden offset by a spirited bunch of local youngsters continuing to populate their ranks.

Even their solitary loss, to the Eels by just two points in Round 9, could be argued to have been a good thing – the loss they needed to have, if you will – seeing them smash pre-season premiership fancies the Storm and Roosters in their two matches since.

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If the ’22 grand final was to be played this weekend, you’d have Ivan Cleary’s boys as $1.04 favourites.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 03: Nathan Cleary of the Panthers and Jarome Luai of the Panthers celebrate winning the 2021 NRL Grand Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Suncorp Stadium on October 03, 2021, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Funny thing about that is, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that this Friday evening will indeed be our grand final preview, as the red-hot Cowboys travel to the foot of the mountains to show us once and for all if they’re the real deal.

Because at this stage, they’re shaping as top-four finishers that will give this competition an almighty shake.

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It’s given me immense satisfaction to see Todd Payten turn his charges from a bottom-two to a potentially top-two team.

He showed us during his interim stint with the Warriors that he can coach, so the constant questioning over his ability last season – all because he made a reasonable observation about Jason Taumalolo at the end of Round 1 – was ill-informed and, by the end of ’21, just boring.

Cowboys coach Todd Payten looks on

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

With another season of experience for both Todd and the players – and as much with each other as in the heat of battle – suggests they’re a legit threat, having put the Eels and Storm to the sword with an attacking brand of footy that is set up by a rock-solid forward pack.

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Of course, they did also suffer a pretty big loss to the Roosters, and also have lost to the struggling Warriors and Bulldogs, so that’s why question marks remain.

What’s more, with 2015 premiership winners Kyle Feldt and Taumalolo set to miss this weekend’s game due to injury, the Panthers will be unbackable favourites for the win.

But if North Queensland keep their hands up for the distance against the Pennies, they’ll prove to plenty that they are contenders.

Heading to the other end of the eastern seaboard and Melbourne are in real strife.

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Wait, strike that. Not real strife. Melbourne strife – which is what we call it when Craig Bellamy’s side loses two games in a row.

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Of course, they have been two big losses in a row – 32-6 to the Panthers and 36-6 to the Cowboys.

And while they have the not unreasonable excuse of missing half their spine, in halfback Jahrome Hughes and fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen, for years we fans of teams that are plagued by injury get fed the line, ‘Melbourne don’t suck when they have players out’.

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Well, they kinda suck at the moment, looking decidedly un-Storm like, with the famed next-man-up system spluttering this year.

I’d say something bold like Melbourne are done, but that’s actually saying something stupid. Melbourne aren’t done. Even though their next men up aren’t doing the usual gob-smackingly good job, they will get their injured stars back, and then they’ll go back to putting cricket scores on teams.

As for whether they’ll also claw back the better part of 30 points on the Panthers, well, that’s a different matter.

Jumping back to Sydney and the rest of the Harbour City’s teams are possibles rather than probables.

The Eels and Roosters have been too hot and cold – the former winning games they should lose, the latter losing games they should win – and as a result neither are sitting in the top four.

If I’m a Parra fan, I’d be seriously nervous, as this year shapes as the end of their current premiership window. If I’m a Chooks fan, I’d enjoy the wins and brush off the losses, as their premiership window may not be peaking this year, but it never seems to get any narrower.

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

The Broncos will make the eight on current form but they’re a bit green to go on with it. Souths will likely make the eight too, but they’re a bit… what’s the opposite of green? Brown? To go on with it.

On this though, people lining up to lay the boot into the Bunnies for not retaining Adam Reynolds are speaking a year too soon. South Sydney weren’t worried about the little halfback being crap in ’22, they were worried about keeping him instead of at least two – maybe three – of their crop of young players who shape as core of the club’s next title run.

Reynolds’ form next year dictates whether Souths were stupid to not offer him another deal. That said, he’s been an astute buy for the Broncos regardless.

Manly are the modern-day Knights featuring Andrew Johns – they can’t win without Tom Trbojevic. I know, earth-shattering insight, but his season-ending injury puts paid to their title ambitions.

A few weeks ago, you’d have said the only other team in with a shot is the Sharks, but then they got man-handled 30-10 by a Canberra side who had three players sent to the sin bin over the course of the 80 minutes.

And on the back of that, the Raiders put 20 on the Bunnies to put them on a three-match winning streak and suddenly shoot back into contention for the eight. But that is just chat for the eight, not the title.

Because, as mentioned above, the smart money says that’s going to be Penrith.

However, for a final word on Penrith, beware the May premiers.

Tyrone May passes the ball

No, not that May premier (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

I’m not saying the Panthers will get complacent but they’ve been up for over two years now – they’ve lost just seven games since the start of 2020 for a winning percentage of almost 90 per cent.

That’s just freakish. And at some point, something’s gotta give.

The Origin period shapes as being particularly tough – it’s kind of supposed to be so as to help level things out a bit – with Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Isaah Yeo, Brian To’o, Liam Martin and Api Koroisau all having featured in last year’s series (even if Api’s extra-curricular activities in ’21 have him under a serious question mark for this year), Stephen Crichton firming for a centre spot, and Moses Leota at least in the mix for the squad.

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The club will also have more than its fair share of representatives in the New Zealand versus Tonga Test on June 25 (the night before Origin 2), as well as in the Samoa versus Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea versus Fiji matches on the same day.

Ultimately, injuries and fatigue will strike. They do for everyone.

Of course, it may not be until next year. But there’s a good reason we’ve only had one back-to-back premiership team in the NRL era.

It’s bloody hard to do.

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