The Team That Would Not Lay Down

Two short years ago Penrith was beaten by just about everybody - next year it will be the National Rugby League team everyone wants to beat.

The Panthers, still celebrating their fantastic grand final victory in October, are about to receive a crash course in what it's like to be rugby league's benchmark.

It's all new territory for John Lang's young squad - winners of the wooden spoon in 2001 - but his players showed with their fairytale victory over the Sydney Roosters in the NRL grand final that they're ready for anything or anyone.

They'll start their premiership defence early next year against English Super League champion Bradford in the World Club Challenge.

When chief executive Shane Richardson and Lang were reunited at the Panthers two years ago their goal was to make Penrith the No.1 rugby league side in the world.

Victory over the Bulls would leave them with that mantle.

Then things really heat up.

The Roosters lead the chasing pack.

Factor in the usual suspects - Brisbane, Newcastle, Parrramatta, the Bullldogs, Canberra and the New Zealand Warriors - as well as expected improvement from Melbourne, Cronulla, Manly, St George Illawarra, North Queensland and Wests and it shapes as one of the tightest competitions in recent memory.

The Broncos, unusually out of sorts this season, will be strengthened by the permanent return of Gorden Tallis - who has stood down from representative football to concentrate on life at the Broncos - and the brilliance of Darren Lockyer, who led the Kangaroos on tour in the absence of Tallis and Andrew Johns.