The Penrith Panthers in recent history have been known as a real ‘danger club’. The kind of team that the top four play against and know that an upset is well and truly on the cards.
They’re the kind of team that in recent history pretty much produce as many wins as losses. Only once since 2013 have they finished inside the top four. Only once since 2013 have they made it to the preliminary finals. They last won the comp 15 years ago with a 19 year-old Luke Lewis on the wing.
But you’re kidding me if you say they don’t have what it takes this year.
Penrith were a real surprise package at the start of the season. After losing former cult-hero Matt Moylan to Cronulla, they were $15 at the TAB to win the premiership at the start of the year, compared to favourites the Roosters at $5.
Their only pickups were James Maloney and Tyrone Phillips leading into the 2018 season. Things only got worse at the foot of the mountains when stars Dylan Edwards, Josh Mansour and Nathan Cleary all suffered long-term injuries.
Despite that, the Panthers just kept on winning games under the guidance of veteran James Maloney. His experience proved crucial to a young, inexperienced team, and his cool head towards the end of games saw Penrith on top of the table after 12 rounds.
A slump during the representative period saw them drop down to 6th on the ladder at the start of the round.
Perhaps due to the representative contingent at the foot of the mountains, or the fact that they began to come up against some top clubs such as the Roosters, Broncos and Sharks.
Having only had three games against current top 8 sides in the opening 12 rounds, it could be argued that Penrith looked deceivingly better than they were.
In recent predictions, only 1 of the 21 NRL.com ‘experts’ predicted a top four finish for the Panthers.
Many argue they’ve left it too late to get their act together and start a little run before the finals, and considering the form that the current top four are in, it’s admittedly hard to see them finding a way in.
That being said, as of the end of round 20 the Panthers only find themselves 2 points off 4th place. They still have Canberra, Gold Coast and Newcastle to play, which could ignite some late-season form before they face tricky tests against the Warriors and Storm in the final rounds.
Consistency has been the ‘Achilles Heel’ of Penrith all season.
Only twice have they strung three wins in a row together, with St George being the only top eight side faced in either of those runs. That doesn’t compare favourably to South Sydney’s nine-game streak.
But their line-up is just so strong. Despite still potentially being without fullback Dylan Edwards until the season is over, their exceptional depth softens the blow.
Dallin Waetene-Zelezniak, Josh Mansour, Waqa Blake and Tyrone Peachey are all incredible dangerous backline players who provide threatening options on the edges on both sides of the park.
And how good are their forwards? Viliame Kikau has been an NRL fantasy dream player this season, and his performances on the field have earned him that tag. He runs for over 130 meters a game, and has racked himself up five tries this season.
Both Trent Merrin and James Tamou have already won premierships with the Dragons and Cowboys respectively. They know what it takes come September, and their experience could be crucial for young guys Isaah Yeo, Corey Harawira-Naera and Reagan Campbell Gillard.
To go with that, doesn’t James Fischer-Harris just look like he wants to rip your throat out?
But the most impressive part of an all-star Penrith squad are the master and apprentice. How good have James Maloney and Nathan Cleary been this season?
Sometimes it can be easy to forget that Cleary is only 20 years of age. He has the composure of a seasoned first-grader, and has already guided NSW to just their second Origin victory in 13 years. Being off-contract at the end of 2019, it’d be hard to imagine that any club would let the chance to sign him pass by.
Then there’s the serial winner, James Maloney.
With two premierships with the Roosters and Sharks already to his name, he’ll undoubtably be keen to add a third premiership ring to his closet.
At the ripe old age of 32, you’d argue that he’s on his last legs. But Maloney has shown no signs of slowing down this season and almost single-handedly guided the Panthers through a period of heavy injury toll earlier in the year.
Penrith are a ‘danger club’, even this season. But this time around it’s different. There’s something happening at the foot of the mountains in 2018 and it’s been keeping Penrith fans excited all year. The way they play is electric, and they’re more than capable of beating any side in the comp on the day.
So there you have it, take a word of advice and don’t forget about Penrith for the comp this year. It hasn’t been this open for a very long time, and the Panthers look poised to pounce.