2024 NRL Jerseys
55 days ago | LeagueUnlimited Media
Josh Robertson completes our 2023 NRL club season review series looking at triple-treat premiers Penrith.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|1||Mar 3rd||Fri 8:05pm||H||Brisbane||L||12||-||13||Bluebet||17,125||5th|
|2||Mar 9th||Thu 7:50pm||H||Souths||W||16||-||10||Bluebet||16,906||5th|
|4||Mar 23rd||Thu 7:50pm||A||Parramatta||L||16||-||17||CommBank||16,342||8th|
|5||Mar 31st||Fri 6:00pm||A||Canberra||W||53||-||12||GIO||15,334||6th|
|6||Apr 8th||Sat 5:30pm||H||Manly||W||44||-||12||Bluebet||20,312||2nd|
|7||Apr 15th||Sat 5:30pm||A||Newcastle||W||16||-||15||McD Jones||26,084||2nd|
|8||Apr 20th||Thu 7:50pm||A||Souths||L||18||-||20||Accor||19,548||5th|
|9||Apr 29th||Sat 7:35pm||H*||Wests Tigers||L||8||-||12||Carrington||11,055||8th|
|10||May 6th||Sat 3:00pm||A||Warriors||W||18||-||6||Suncorp||50,183||5th|
|11||May 12th||Fri 8:00pm||H||Sydney||W||48||-||4||Bluebet||20,255||1st|
|12||May 18th||Thu 7:50pm||A||Brisbane||W||15||-||4||Suncorp||33,343||1st|
|14||Jun 4th||Sun 6:15pm||H||St Geo Illa||W||26||-||18||Bluebet||16,912||1st|
|15||Jun 10th||Sat 7:35pm||A||Sydney||W||30||-||6||Allianz||23,610||2nd|
|16||Jun 16th||Fri 8:00pm||A||North QLD||L||23||-||27||QLD C B||17,277||2nd|
|17||Jun 24th||Sat 5:30pm||H||Newcastle||W||20||-||12||Bluebet||18,589||1st|
|18||Jun 30th||Fri 8:00pm||A||Melbourne||W||34||-||16||Marvel||26,829||1st|
|20||Jul 16th||Sun 4:05pm||A||Dolphins||W||24||-||14||Kayo||10,065||1st|
|21||Jul 23rd||Sun 2:00pm||H||Canterbury||W||44||-||18||Bluebet||21,525||2nd|
|22||Jul 29th||Sat 7:35pm||H||Cronulla||W||28||-||0||Bluebet||20,694||1st|
|23||Aug 4th||Fri 8:00pm||H||Melbourne||W||26||-||6||Bluebet||19,953||1st|
|24||Aug 10th||Thu 7:50pm||A||Manly||W||24||-||12||4 Pines||10,102||2nd|
|25||Aug 19th||Sat 5:30pm||A||Gold Coast||W||40||-||14||Cbus||19,101||1st|
|26||Aug 24th||Thu 7:50pm||H||Parramatta||L||18||-||32||Bluebet||21,525||2nd|
|27||Sep 2nd||Sat 5:30pm||H||North QLD||W||44||-||12||Bluebet||21,525||1st|
|QF||Sep 9th||Sat 4:05pm||H||Warriors||W||32||-||6||Bluebet||21,525||-|
|PF||Sep 22nd||Fri 7:50pm||H||Melbourne||W||38||-||4||Accor||35,578||-|
|GF||Oct 1st||Sun 7:30pm||H||Brisbane||W||26||-||24||Accor||81,947||-|
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.
27 players, average age 25.95yrs
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)
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.
based on current signings, at the time of writing