2022 review: Penrith Panthers

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"The Greatest Penrith team in history" were the (in)famous words of James Fisher-Harris just 12 hours after the Penrith Panthers secured back-to-back premierships.

Those words upset some, but arguably they were accurate for a team - and club - that is in a period of success very rarely seen in Rugby League.

There were questions about whether the Panthers could continue their success from 2020 (grand finalists) and 2021 (premiers) into a third straight grand final and then trying to do the almost impossible: win back-to-back premierships and become just the second team in the NRL era to do so. Little did anybody know, that the Panthers were set for the biggest season of silverware in the club and in Rugby League's history, picking up multiple NSWRL titles alongside the NRL crown.

Things weren't necessarily all smooth sailing for the Panthers though, despite their success. Starting the season without Nathan Cleary through his shoulder surgery recovery, finishing the last six weeks without the same key star, and a potentially rocky period through Origin.

Penrith kicked things off with a new-look halves combination of Jarome Luai and Sean O'Sullivan combining magnificently to set themsevles on a 3-0 season start before Nathan Cleary took the reins and stretched the record to eight wins unbeaten before a loss to chief rivals Parramatta at home saw the winning streak halted.

The middle of the season - which looked to be the rockiest road for the Panthers - seemed to go brilliantly, with a clean streak of wins including a narrow victory over the Wests Tigers. In that match, they relied on what was mostly a NSW Cup team to accomplish victory. Not every journey is smooth sailing and the Round 20 clash against the Eels proved to be the potential Iceberg in the path.

Turning point

The Nathan Cleary send-off in that Eels clash and subsequently a heavy defeat put questions on the Panthers' season and premiership aspirations given that just a week before, Jarome Luai had suffered a knee injury that was going to keep him out for what looked like at least the rest of the regular season. Penrith managed to find something yet again though, with a halves combination of Sean O'Sullivan and Jaeman Salmon leading the Panthers to victories against Canberra and then sealing the minor premiership with a win against the Rabbitohs.

They were then still able to find momentum, Luai returning early in Round 24 and Cleary in the first week of the finals. The preliminary final was nearly a different story, a poor start had the Panthers trailing last year's vanquished Grand Finalists in South Sydney, and there were plenty of nervous moments for the fans in the stands after trailing 12-0 close to halftime.

An attitude that never admits defeat, proved itself vital as the Panthers were able capitalise on some luck and then turn it into attack and not look back, ultimately cruising home to a 20-point win and book a third consecutive Grand Final berth.

There was absolutely no doubt about the Grand Final in 2022 (unlike the nerves of 2021), as the Panthers dominated from start to finish, opening up a 28-0 lead over Parramatta before conceding a couple of very late tries and taking the 28-12 victory.

What worked

Everything. Well, almost everything for the Panthers worked in season 2022 - because you can't be doing much wrong if you are managing to win five trophies across a possible six different competitions. The Panthers system worked starting at the beginning of the year when the Harold Matthews Cup side took an amazing come-from-behind victory over the Roosters to win that competition, then the success of the Panthers across the season with several players who had either made their debut last year or this season slotting into the first grade side seamlessly.

The success here showed also in the New South Wales Cup when a patchwork side was managed to score a remarkable finals victory in the first week, when the majority of the regular side was called up to NRL duty after key stars were rested. The experience of the big games helped the Panthers with their Jersey Flegg, NSW Cup and NRL State Championship victories, setting a framework for the future.

What didn't work

There probably wasn't anything that didn't work for the Panthers this season which shows how good the season was.

If you had to pin down something that didn't work it might have been a couple of the performances where Penrith was comprehensively outplayed against Parramatta, Melbourne and the Cowboys, although any side missing their key spine would struggle as well.

2022 results

RndDateDayOppositionVenueCrowdRank
1Mar 10thThu 8:05pmHManlyW28-6BlueBet16,9011st
2Mar 18thFri 6:00pmASt Geo IllaW20-16Netstrata10,0571st
3Mar 26thSat 3:00pmH NNewcastleW38-20Bathurst11,2531st
4Apr 1stFri 8:05pmHSouthsW26-12BlueBet20,5211st
5Apr 10thSun 6:15pmACanterburyW32-12CommBank11,1571st
6Apr 15thFri 7:55pmHBrisbaneW40-12BlueBet19,4061st
7Apr 24thSun 4:05pmHCanberraW36-6BlueBet20,6121st
8Apr 29thFri 6:00pmAGold CoastW18-4CBUS14,1021st
9May 6thFri 7:55pmHParramattaL20-22BlueBet21,5482nd
10May 14thSat 7:45pmA NMelbourneW32-6Suncorp41,5931st
11May 21stSat 7:35pmASydneyW32-12SCG14,4821st
12May 27thFri 6:00pmHNorth QldW22-0BlueBet17,1251st
13Jun 3rdFri 7:55pmHCanterburyW30-18BlueBet16,9061st
14Jun 12thSun 4:05pmANewcastleW42-6McD. Jones21,3321st
15Jun 18thSat 5:30pmAWarriorsW40-6Redcliffe8,1271st
16Jul 1stFri 7:55pmHSydneyW26-18BlueBet16,7251st
18Jul 17thSun 2:00pmAWests TigersW18-16CommBank11,4641st
19Jul 23rdSat 5:30pmHCronullaW20-10BlueBet17,4261st
20Jul 29thFri 7:55pmAParramattaL10-34CommBank26,9121st
21Aug 6thSat 5:30pmACanberraW26-6GIO Stadium16,9121st
22Aug 11thThu 7:50pm
HMelbourneL0-16BlueBet15,6121st
23Aug 18thThu 7:50pmASouthsW26-22Accor15,2081st
24Aug 26thFri 6:00pmHWarriorsW46-12BlueBet17,0251st
25Sep 3rdSat 7:35pmANorth QldL8-38QLD C.B.23,8401st
QFSep 9thFri 7:50pmHParramattaW27-8BlueBet21,8631st
PFSep 24thSat 7:50pmH NSouthsW32-12Accor50,0351st
GFOct 2ndSun 7:30pmH NParramattaW28-12Accor82,4151st

Best players

It doesn't matter what anybody says, but for mine, the best fullback and one of the season's best players in the competition was Dylan Edwards - an absolute star for Penrith in the custodian role. The club favourite was amazing across the season just amassing metre after metre, running the ball back and putting the fear in opposition defence as the Panthers set up their attack.

It's hard not to focus on the work of Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai across the season as some of the Panthers' best players in the season, but Isaah Yeo's efforts in the middle of the park have been fantastic. His control and patience help the Panthers settle things down when play was getting dicy, and just reset the attack.

Another unsung hero of the Panthers side that doesn't get the plaudits is the man who quickly became a fan favourite last season and then again this season gaining the nickname 'Hot Scott' by fans on social media. Scott Sorensen's efforts off the bench are arguably one of the major factors and a grand final try was probably one of the most deserved.

Rookies

The Panthers have never been short of talented rookies and yet again so many were able to star for Penrith including the likes of Taylan May and Izack Tago who become a force on the edge for the mountain men in 2022. The pair combined for 29 tries this season which helped them become an almost unstoppable force in the season out on the edges.

The Panthers had three debutants in their Round 25 clash with the Cowboys, which included the likes of Thomas Jenkins who starred in the NSW Cup for this season scoring 20 tries, as well as Jack Cole who is a rising star for the future both in the halves and in the backline. Another was second-rower Liam Henry, who has so much potential for the future and is set to join the Panthers top 30 in 2024.

2022 player stats

PlayerAgeAppTGFGPtsBinOff
BLACKER, Eddie221------
CLEARY, Nathan24173761165-1
COLE, Jack-1------
CRICHTON, Christian261------
CRICHTON, Stephen22231332-116--
EDWARDS, Dylan26259--361-
EISENHUTH, Matt3016------
FALLS, Kurt263-7-14--
FISHER-HARRIS, James26233--121-
HENRY, Liam-1------
HOPGOOD, J'maine234------
JENKINS, Thomas-1----1-
JENNINGS, Robert2651--4--
KENNY, Mitch24241--4--
KIKAU, Viliame27259--36--
KOROISAU, Apisai29255--20--
LENIU, Spencer22256--24--
LEOTA, Moses27181--4--
LUAI, Jarome25207--28--
LUKE, Soni264------
MARTIN, Liam25227--28--
MAY, Taylan212116--641-
O'SULLIVAN, Sean241122-12--
SALMON, Jaeman23252--8--
SMITH, Christopher2861--4--
SMITH, Lindsay223------
SORENSEN, Scott29242--8--
STAINES, Charlie21163--12--
TAGO, Izack202613--52--
TO'O, Brian241813--52--
TURUVA, Sunia2031--4--
YEO, Isaah27234--16--
32 players25.1627122117172341

Looking ahead

It's hard to see the Panthers having a big slide backwards in 2023 given that a large number of the squad is still with the club, although the losses of Api Koroisau and Villiame Kikau are going to hurt. The vision of Koroisau out of dummy half makes a big difference and Kikau's edge running game is some of the best in the competition.

Api's departure opens the door for Mitch Kenny to take the #9 jumper fulltime while it's like Soni Luke will help Kenny in the dummy-half rotation. Luke Garner makes the journey up The Northern Road to slot into the second-row vacancy created by Kikau's departure.

Tyrone Peachey also returns to the foot of the mountains after a few seasons away at the Titans and Tigers, while other new faces included former Newcastle and Huddersfield five-eighth Jack Cogger, and forward Zac Hosking from Brisbane.

Despite the key losses of Kikau and Koroisau, you wouldn't be out of line saying that the Panthers could have continued success and become one of the most successful sides since the Parramatta and Canterbury in the 1980s.

2023 Best 17

at time of writing

1. Dylan Edwards
2. Taylan May
3. Izack Tago
4. Stephen Crichton
5. Brian To'o
6. Jarome Luai
7. Nathan Cleary
8. Moses Leota
9. Mitch Kenny
10. James Fisher-Harris
11. Luke Garner
12. Liam Martin
13. Isaah Yeo

14. Soni Luke
15. Scott Sorensen
16. Spencer Leniu
17. Jaeman Salmon


Statistics: Rugby League Project