19 April, 2024
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NRL grand final: Panthers poised for record feat


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Greatness is subjective but history is written by the winners. And today Penrith has the opportunity to win its third grand final in a row, to enter the record books and become only the third club since the 1950s to claim a three-peat.

Parramatta did it between 1981 and 1983. St George won a staggering 11 premierships between 1956 and 1966.

But in the NRL era, at a time of greater competition and salary cap pressures, this is rarefied air.

Back in 2015 it would be nearly impossible to predict the Panthers’ majestic rise to become the dominant force in the NRL. That season was a terrible one for the Chocolate Soldiers, with a second-from-bottom finish on the ladder and coach Ivan Cleary sacked.

Significant developments came in 2016 with the first-grade debuts of halfback Nathan Cleary, Ivan’s son, fullback Dylan Edwards, and forwards James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota. All four had played in Penrith’s Under-20 grand final winning team together the year before.

Under coach Anthony Griffin the club finished a respectable sixth in 2016, seventh in 2017 and then fifth in 2018. It had secured regular finals appearances, but not yet made the jump to become credible contenders. Then in August 2018 Griffin was axed in messy style, after failing out with football boss Phil Gould.

Cleary was controversially lured back from Wests Tigers and eyebrows were raised. But the 2019 campaign was a disaster, with the club winning only 11 games and finishing tenth, missing the finals.

In this phase the coach made the key decision to blood the next range of promising youngsters – Stephen Crichton, Brian To’o, Liam Martin and Spencer Leniu.

This would prove crucial. In 2020, played under the backdrop of COVID and in front of empty stadiums, the Panthers caught fire. They went on a 17-game winning streak, the longest in NRL history, and won the minor premiership. They appeared unstoppable and made it all the way to the grand final, where they met the Melbourne Storm.

However, it was the more experienced and seasoned Storm who prevailed in the decider four years ago. Melbourne had raced out to a 22-0 at half-time, but only managed to hold off the fast-finishing mountain men 26-20 at full-time.

The veteran Storm sent out retiring skipper and talisman Cameron Smith a winner, and the young Penrith charges were taught a lesson.

Panthers go back to back as minor premiers

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It was one they heeded. The following year they finished second on the table, winning 21 of 24 games, and took their first premiership, defeating South Sydney in the grand final. In 2022 they backed it up, winning the minor premiership and smashing Parramatta in style in the decider.

This year they have again been remarkably consistent, winning another minor premiership and making it through to the grand final for the fourth time in a row. This time the Brisbane Broncos stand in their way of making history.

How has this 57-year-old club, not one of the traditional giants of the past century-plus, established itself at the top of Australian rugby league? The coaching of Cleary has been crucial, as has the leadership and ability of his offspring. Now a World Cup winner, playmaker Nathan is fast becoming an all-time great.

The work that Gould, himself a former Penrith grand final-winning coach, did a decade ago in reorganising the club and building their pathways has also been vital. That area of western Sydney has been a goldmine that keeps producing prized metal after prized metal.

The Panthers’ recruitment has been equally impressive, picking up talented young kids, whether they be from New Zealand or country NSW, and bringing them through the grades together. The tight bond that the likes of Cleary, Luai, Crichton, To’o and others have developed over the years through the youth systems cannot be underestimated.

Each year Penrith has lost talented players to other clubs, as the salary cap system comes into play.

In 2020 it was James Maloney and Reagan Campbell-Gillard, in 2021 it was James Tamou and Josh Mansour, in 2022 it was Matt Burton and Kurt Capewell, this year it was Viliame Kikau and Api Koroisau. But such is the structure that the Chocolate Soldiers have constructed, such is the team ethos that they live by, that they have continued to win.

Victory on Sunday at Accor Stadium is far from assured. They’ve played the Broncos twice this year, losing 13-12 at home in round one and then beating the Queensland outfit 26-18 away. Little has separated the two teams.

Brisbane is a quality side with an amazing halfback in Adam Reynolds, a powerhouse prop in Payne Haas, a fantastic fullback in Reece Walsh and they boast their own father-son/coach-player duo in Kevin and Billy Walters, just like the Clearys.

The Broncos might have been in the doldrums for a few years, and have not won a competition since 2006, but they are arguably the NRL’s biggest club and are ready for success. They won’t die wondering in Homebush.

But only one side can achieve greatness this weekend, only one can be etched in history. Only Penrith has that chance.

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