The Roar
The Roar


ANALYSIS: Pressure grows on O'Brien as perfect Panthers rest five Origin stars but make it look easy

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24th June, 2023

Penrith have delivered another remorseless, relentless performance to defeat Newcastle 20-12 and return to joint first place in the table, heaping pressure on Knights coach Adam O’Brien in the process.

Despite missing five stars, the Panthers turned in one of their best showings of the year, with a near-faultless opening hour that ensured the game was played almost exclusively in the Knights’ half. The points that followed were almost a formality.

Jarome Luai, Stephen Crichton, Brian To’o, Isaah Yeo and Liam Martin all sat out after playing for New South Wales, while Nathan Cleary remains injured, but Jaeman Salmon and Jack Cogger ensured that they were not missed.

This was classic Ivan Cleary football: the backline metres were huge, the linespeed was fast and everything else flowed from that.

Newcastle did throw back occasionally, including an excellent first half try from Kalyn Ponga, but never stood a chance.

Adam O’Brien’s men now look the longest of shots for the top eight, but there was little he could have done against this machine-like Penrith outfit.

“If there was an easy fix, I certainly would have fixed it,” said the coach. “It seems to be we plug a hole, there and then another leak sprouts for next week. So we just gotta keep looking at our game and working out how we can improve it.

“We have to keep swinging. The boys are in there swinging away. We’re just lacking a little bit. We need to stick together, stay tight and (it will) turn.”


They might worry over the fitness of Jackson Hastings, too, who left for a period after what appeared to be a recurrence of the ankle injury that ended his season in 2022. Though he did return for the end of the game, the halfback looked less than comfortable.

Cleary was a lot happier than his Knights counterpart, but admitted that he was frustrated at having to back up after Wednesday night’s Origin clash, leading him to rest his players.

“At some point there’s got to be some consideration around whether backing up from Origin is an outdated concept,” he said.

“The NRL season is so tough this year, so even the games feel like they’re even harder in the middle of the year whereas some years it drops off a little bit.

“I just feel like all our Origin guys, they all played at the World Cup, they all played for New South Wales and we probably underestimate the emotional toll that Origin can take, especially if you lose, that’s all part of it.

“We got a big injury after Game I with Nathan backing up. A few guys at different clubs got injured backing up, so that all comes into it.

“For those guys to sit on the sideline and have a few days off and we still get the win, is enormous.”


Perfect Panthers

Completion rates are a bit of a useless stat – they have little to no correlation with winning – but it’s impossible to argue with a 100% record, which is what the Panthers had through 50 minutes of this game.

Spencer Leniu, who conceded an offensive penalty, was the man to end the streak after 28 consecutive completed sets.

Moreover, there had also been just one tackle in their own 20m zone at that point, proving the Panthers’ domination both in and out of possession.

Completions are useful to giving a guide on how error-free a team has been, but usually, an abnormally high rate is accompanied by a conservative style that often fails to bank points. Not here. 

Penrith played side to side, chancing their arm and, largely, getting results for it. Newcastle were unable to keep up with the relentlessness of it all.

Even in the first half, it was evident that Penrith washing machine was winning. There was no breaks in play for over ten minutes, with no penalties or errors, with both sides keeping the ball on the island with their kicking.


Penrith love that kind of game, and the Knights wilted. Phoenix Crossland was visibly gassed after just half an hour, a testament to how much tackling he had been forced to do. 

Even without their stars, the Panthers were able to go through their motions and dominate the game. That’s because the system is the star, the platform from which the very best players are able to able to shine.

Tonight, with a sizeable chunk of salary cap sat on the sideline, that was more true than ever.

Newcastle run into a juggernaut

It’s hard to criticise the Knights too harshly for this performance. They were a clear second best all along, but pretty much any team would have been given the nature of Penrith’s showing. They were asked to go with the Panthers and couldn’t. 

There were elements in which Newcastle let themselves down, notably the error for Tyrone Peachey’s second try and the brain explosion sin bin from Jack Hetherington. 


But in most elements they were fine. They tackled for their lives to keep the score within reach, when on other occasions, they might have fallen away completely.

When Newcastle got decent footy, they were expansive with it and, against lesser teams, probably would have been more rewarded.

Over the course of the game, they weren’t far away, but against Penrith, you have to be perfect. Newcastle weren’t.