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MVP Dylan Edwards is the man Penrith's system might not be able to cover

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Expert
25th April, 2024
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1153 Reads

Much is made of the Panthers’ star-studded squad that naturally features heavily when representative football approaches.

Rightly so, with a host of premiership winning players near automatic picks. Yet time and again, when injury strikes or representative selection impacts availability, Penrith are forced to scramble without all their cream present and the sum of the parts takes over.

Even the departures of Stephen Crichton, Viliame Kikau and Matt Burton don’t appear to have halted their momentum, with finals certain in 2024 and market favouritism remaining solid early in the season.

It is the efficient system built by Ivan Cleary that takes over in troubled times and gets them through relatively unscathed, ready to attack when back at full strength.

It seems the Panthers can potentially cover the absence of anyone in any position, with others ready to adopt the ‘one man out, one man in’ mantra and keep the ship pumping relentlessly towards the final destination.

Except perhaps for one man, metre-eating full-back Dylan Edwards, whose durability and consistency over the last four seasons has him placed as one of the most valuable players in the game, and perhaps the one the Panthers do not want to attempt to play without for any length of time.

Edwards has played an incredible 78 of the Panthers’ 89 matches since the start of the 2021 season and the incredible numbers he continues to produce on a week to week basis set a benchmark for fullbacks in the competition in terms of consistency and excellence.

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Already in 2024, the 28-year-old has established an embarrassing dominance at the top of the total running metres and average running metres statistics with 1,491 and 248 respectively. Frankly, daylight is second and there are very few in the rugby league viewing public surprised based on preceding seasons.

His 683 kick return metres entering Round 8 place him near 200 metres ahead of the next best in the NRL and have Edwards well on the way to eclipsing the 1,890 he achieved in 2023.

With averages of 188, 223 and 207 running metres per match across 2021-23, the Albury-born custodian has been the rock upon which the Panthers have built their forward momentum.

Across four seasons, Dylan Edwards has been the NRL running metres king. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Even with coaches understanding more than ever the importance of the back three and the necessity to kick astutely to limit the impact of kick returners, Edwards just keep producing; thus allowing his big men slightly shorter trips back into the attacking line and the benefit of a scrambling defensive line he has often broken or disrupted.

Quite simply, Edwards reads the ball well off the boot, returns the ball from kicks with speed and elusiveness that few can match and also expertly times his injections into general play well, off the back of the Penrith forwards that play an organised shape promoting his involvement.

With Nathan Cleary absent across the last month and some growing concerns over the soft tissue injuries that appear to be popping up far more frequently than he would care to deal with, the Penrith collective power has taken over and once again managed to keep the mountain men well on track this season.

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SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 01: Nathan Cleary of the Panthers celebrates scoring a try during the 2023 NRL Grand Final match between Penrith Panthers and Brisbane Broncos at Accor Stadium on October 01, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Nathan Cleary is a star of the NRL, yet the Panther’s system handles his absence well. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Whilst Cleary is obviously the most intellectually talented footballer at Penrith, his absences have not brought about panic or catastrophe, with the club winning two from three during his most recent short term absence.

The numbers clocked up by Edwards and the fact that he has been something of an iron man over the last four seasons, mount a serious argument that he could potentially be the most valuable player in the Penrith line-up.

Especially given the little experience the squad has playing without him in the custodian role and the efficiency they show when other big names are missing.

A Cleary, Jerome Luai, Isaah Yeo or Brian To’o are no doubt missed when absent, yet the extended squad always seems to manage to keep the mountain men’s head above water until they return.

However, without Edwards, I’m not sure there is a player capable of producing even 70 per cent of his output as a substitute, let alone being a like for like replacement.

Finally rewarded with national colours in 2023, Edwards shows no signs of doing anything other than making 2024 another statistically remarkable season.

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With the Panthers certain to feature heavily during the Origin period and rep stars facing three games in nine days around the opening match of the series on June 5, Edwards will once again be key to navigating the period.

Unlikely to be selected barring injury to others, Edwards will be crucial to holding the fort across a challenging five weeks.

He has done it before and will probably do it again, in his ever irreplaceable style.

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