2023 review: Penrith Panthers

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Josh Robertson completes our 2023 NRL club season review series looking at triple-treat premiers Penrith.

"Two plays left in the set, it goes to Cleary… NATHAN CLEARY… WOW…. He's done it all himself!"

It's a piece of commentary that will go down in NRL history, as the Penrith Panthers blew up the record books, pulling off the greatest comeback in Grand Final history. 24-6 down, the mountain men surged late to win 26-24, snatching a third successive NRL Telstra Premiership.

History has been against the Panthers in each of their three premiership victories this decade.

In 2021, they had to go the long route after losing Week 1, then in 2022, had to become one of the few sides to go back-to-back in the modern game. Never mind having to try and become the first side in 40 years to win three straight in 2023 - and having to come from 16 points behind to win it.

Let's rewind. There were ominous signs for the Panthers and what was about to happen in 2023, when their first real competitive match came under torrential rain, the consistent rumbling of thunder and some of the best lightning you will ever see as they hosted St Helens in the World Club Challenge. They struggled for most of the contest, and it might have been a premonition of the season to come, because they needed a comeback. They pulled that off to draw level - only to lose in Golden Point.

The season commenced and Penrith were off their game in Round 1, leading many to ask whether this was the same team as in recent years, with the defending premiers slipping to one win from their first three games. After that early shock, they righted the ship, with the 'Panthers of old' going on a second-half blitz against the Raiders in Canberra to notch up a 53-12 win.

Despite big wins against Canberra and Manly, struggles were still evident, with a come from behind win away to Newcastle, where it was not one but two Nathan Cleary field goals that sealed the deal, the latter coming in Golden Point.

The Panthers then had back-to-back defeats where they fell late to South Sydney - after being in the position to win the game - and then a night to forget in torrential rain at Bathurst's Carrington Park, when they fell to a 12-8 loss against the Tigers.

While they did return to the winners circle in Magic Round, it was a scrappy win over the Warriors, and following that the Mountain Men sat in third spot, still four points behind clubhouse leaders South Sydney and Brisbane.

Penrith were starting to find form as they picked up a very impressive win over the Roosters, then got revenge for Round 1 against the Broncos with a scrappy 15-4 win.

Turning point

The Origin period loomed as a banana peel for the Panthers and it was the biggest one that the defending premiers had faced in recent years. Returning from Origin camp after Game I, Panthers coach Ivan Cleary elected to play his stars including Nathan Cleary, who subsequently midway through the first half suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out for the remainder of the Origin series.

Penrith's season looked like it had the potential to be a boulder rolling down Old Bathurst Road going down dangerously fast.

Up stepped Jack Cogger, the unlikely hero - seamlessly filling in the role at halfback and the Panthers impressed again, first of all in a very heated clash with the Roosters at Allianz Stadium.

The Origin-impacted the Panthers then went down to the Cowboys before picking up a surprise win against the Knights, which left even Melbourne captain Christian Welch surprised by the Panthers' win from some 900km away.

In my view, the best performance of the season came under the roof of Marvel Stadium, when the Panthers - led by Jarome Luai and Jack Cogger - looked a long way from the game early trailing 14-0. It seemed implausible they would lead 16-14 at the break, yet they did and then went on to win 34-16. The 'Pink Panthers' that night showed that even without Cleary, they were still a major force in the competition.

Once again assuming the mantle as the 'team to beat', they added another six straight wins to their season tally. With their grip on the minor premiership tightening, the Panthers had a major slip-up when they suffered an embarrassing loss to the Eels, losing 32-18 at home to their nearest rivals. A big final-round win against the Cowboys steadied the ship and with Brisbane losing the night before, the Minor Premiership returned to Penrith for the third time in four seasons.

The finals were about as close to a cakewalk for the Panthers as they could get, outscoring the Warriors and Melbourne by a combined 70 points to 10 on their way to a fourth consecutive Grand Final berth.

The Grand Final was a different story altogether. Far from their best as they dominated possession in the opening half, they could only manage one lucky try through fan favourite Mitch Kenny, and a penalty goal. Things really went downhill as the Broncos picked up momentum off a late first-half try and then a huge 20 minutes from Ezra Mam after the break put Brisbane ahead 24-6.

Things looked gone for the reigning champions, Brisbane dominating everything and having lost Jarome Luai and Izack Tago. It looked as if any hopes of the elusive three-peat was gone. Nathan Cleary flipped the switch, and the rest - as they say - is history, as the Panthers stamped themselves as arguably the best team of the modern era.

What worked

Depth. Despite not having as successful a season in the lower grades compared to 2022, the Panthers again used their depth successfully across the season when they needed it.

The signing of Jack Cogger was a masterstroke, and although it looked odd at the start of the season he was the 'Cog' that set the side rolling mid-season when without Nathan - then without Jarome, especially in the Grand Final. Without Cogger, the Panthers probably don't win their third straight title.

What didn't

The rain. This might be an odd take, but the Panthers seemed to struggle in wet weather games, especially in the worst of the conditions against St Helens in the World Club Challenge, but then again they struggled in the pouring rain in Bathurst. If the Panthers did have an Achilles heel, it might be from the sky, not on the field.

2023 week-by-week

1Mar 3rdFri 8:05pmHBrisbaneL12-13Bluebet17,1255th
2Mar 9thThu 7:50pmHSouthsW16-10Bluebet16,9065th
4Mar 23rdThu 7:50pm
5Mar 31stFri 6:00pmACanberraW53-12GIO15,3346th
6Apr 8thSat 5:30pmHManlyW44-12Bluebet20,3122nd
7Apr 15thSat 5:30pmANewcastleW16-15McD Jones26,0842nd
8Apr 20thThu 7:50pm
9Apr 29thSat 7:35pmH*Wests TigersL8-12Carrington11,0558th
10May 6thSat 3:00pmAWarriorsW18-6Suncorp50,1835th
11May 12thFri 8:00pmHSydneyW48-4Bluebet20,2551st
12May 18thThu 7:50pm
14Jun 4thSun 6:15pmHSt Geo IllaW26-18Bluebet16,9121st
15Jun 10thSat 7:35pmASydneyW30-6Allianz23,6102nd
16Jun 16thFri 8:00pmANorth QLDL23-27QLD C B17,2772nd
17Jun 24thSat 5:30pmHNewcastleW20-12Bluebet18,5891st
18Jun 30thFri 8:00pmAMelbourneW34-16Marvel26,8291st
20Jul 16thSun 4:05pmADolphinsW24-14Kayo10,0651st
21Jul 23rdSun 2:00pmHCanterburyW44-18Bluebet21,5252nd
22Jul 29thSat 7:35pmHCronullaW28-0Bluebet20,6941st
23Aug 4thFri 8:00pmHMelbourneW26-6Bluebet19,9531st
24Aug 10thThu 7:50pm
AManlyW24-124 Pines10,1022nd
25Aug 19thSat 5:30pmAGold CoastW40-14Cbus19,1011st
26Aug 24thThu 7:50pm
27Sep 2ndSat 5:30pmHNorth QLDW44-12Bluebet21,5251st
QFSep 9thSat 4:05pmHWarriorsW32-6Bluebet21,525-
PFSep 22ndFri 7:50pmHMelbourneW38-4Accor35,578-
GFOct 1stSun 7:30pmHBrisbaneW26-24Accor81,947-

Defining players

Every single player was a defining player this season, and I could write so much about each one. But instead of looking at the adding to the countless column inches already dedicated to big anmes like Cleary, Luai, Edwards, or Fisher-Harris, I wanted to have a quick mention of some of the other names that don't get the plaudits that they should.

Mitch Kenny is the big one. The unsung hero is a fan favourite and there was criticism about his game being considered a massive downgrade from Api Koroisau, who departed at the end of 2022. Whilst Kenny doesn't have the expansive game of his predecessor, his job in the team isn't the same and he delivered it strongly, picking up the Grand Final try - and threw the key pass to Cleary for the winner.

A signing questioned by many, Jack Cogger arguably could have been buy of the year, because there was no guarantee that he would be anything more than an NSW Cup halfback. He was so much more, and was the steady hand that the Panthers needed at key times.

The final player to mention is the unsung work of Scott Sorensen, the Panthers' second rower doesn't get the plaudits that he should because he does everything you want and more. He has the running power that you need from a second rower but also has speed and strong ball-handling skills.


For a club that produces some of the strongest junior talent in the game, the Panthers only had two debutants this season. Jesse McLean - who had a less-than-ideal debut against the Eels coming up against Maika Sivo in all his powerful glory. The other debutant was hooker Luke Sommerton, who made his debut against Manly in the rare number 26 jersey, and as a late call-up and impressed in his time on the field before playing in Round 27 against the Cowboys and picking up a try.

The other rookie that needs looking at is one who you forget was technically a rookie, the player who took home Dally M Rookie of the Year - Sunia Turuva. The Fijian international wasn't even guaranteed a start in 2023 but when a season-ending injury came to Taylan May during the pre-season, he booked himself a spot on the wing. Turuva became a safe figure for the Panthers both in defence, and then the huge metres that he can make in attack when teams kick wide to try to avoid Edwards.

2023 player list

CLEARY, Nathan25238915220--
COGGER, Jack2614-51111-
CRICHTON, Stephen23251521-1021-
EDWARDS, Dylan2726122-52--
EISENHUTH, Matt3112------
FISHER-HARRIS, James2724------
GARNER, Luke28131--4--
HENRY, Liam222------
HOSKING, Zac26223--12--
JENKINS, Thomas2255--20--
KENNY, Mitch25241--41-
LENIU, Spencer23221--41-
LEOTA, Moses28273--12--
LUAI, Jarome26233--12--
LUKE, Soni27201--41-
McLEAN, Jesse-1------
MARTIN, Liam26186--24--
MAY, Taylan221------
PEACHEY, Tyrone321510--401-
SALMON, Jaeman24184--16--
SMITH, Lindsay2323------
SOMMERTON, Luke-21--4--
SORENSEN, Scott30234--16--
TAGO, Izack211711--44--
TO'O, Brian252422--88--
TURUVA, Sunia212712--48--
YEO, Isaah28254--16--

27 players, average age 25.95yrs

Season snapshot

Coach: Ivan Cleary
Captains: Nathan Cleary (22), Isaah Yeo (8), Dylan Edwards (3)

Biggest home crowd: 21,525 (vs. Canterbury in round 21)
Average home crowd: 19,100

Top pointscorer: Nathan Cleary (220)
Top tryscorer: Brian To'o (26)

Club award winners

  • Merv Cartwright Medal - Isaah Yeo
  • John Farragher Award for Courage and Determination - Moses Leota
  • MKJ Projects Members Player of the Year - Dylan Edwards
  • Ben Alexander Rookie of the Year - Sunia Turuva
  • Club Person of the Year - Henry Ward
  • Senior Education Award - Jack Cogger
  • Jersey Flegg Player of the Year - Sam Lane
  • Junior Education Award - Sam Lane
  • NSW Cup Player of the Year - Liam Henry
  • OAK Plus Try of the Year - Izack Tago

Looking ahead

The Panthers are going to look for a rare fourth premiership and any questions about the desire for it can't be questioned. The talk out of the club is all about going for that fourth, which is what you want to hear.

The loss of several key players again could be a big issue but with the Panthers' "next man-up" attitude, this could only be a drop in the puddle for them.

Best 17 in 2024

based on current signings, at the time of writing

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

  14. Soni Luke
  15. Lindsay Smith
  16. Zac Hosking
  17. Luke Garner