It’s been some sort of season for the Penrith Panthers, who all but locked up the minor premiership with a clunky, yet still classy win over the Brisbane Broncos on Thursday.
Let’s call a spade a spade. It was an average performance from the Panthers, but every club is entitled to a few over the course of the season.
For the Panthers, it was their first performance which could be classified as less than brilliant for three months, and even when they did dish it out off a five-day turnaround and tough day trip to Brisbane, they still won, extending the streak to 12.
It’s an incredible run of games, and while next week’s game against Parramatta will likely have to see a better effort if they are to walk out of the Western Sydney derby with two competition points, the Panthers bandwagon is a big one and unlikely to slow down anytime soon.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint any particular weakness for the men from the foot of the mountains, last night proved despite the clunkiness of their performance that they have the best halves combination in the competition.
It would have taken a bold and brave person to make that claim at the start of the season, but even not playing well, Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary combined enough, held the fort with their kicking game and created enough opportunities. They managed to take four of them, recovering from conceding the first try to win.
The try they combined for against the Broncos, a deft Cleary grubber which sat up for Luai to score – well, allegedly score – was superb, but just another chapter in a marvellous 2020 season for the Penrith kids.
While Cleary has rightly taken most of the plaudits in the media and is almost unarguably one of the top players this season, it goes without saying he wouldn’t be in the position he is in without Luai next to him.
That’s not to say the rest of the side haven’t played a role. Apisai Koroisau’s signing from Manly has brought untold success to Ivan Cleary’s team, while the continued improvement of Dylan Edwards, who clocked more than 200 metres for the fourth week in a row last night – 298 to be exact – have both been tremendous to the Panthers.
But it’s Luai who could put his hand up for most improved player in the competition.
Filling the shoes of James Maloney, who left a club battling to make the eight, he has taken over, running the ball freely and contributing to the kicking game required.
It’s given the Panthers a lethal one-two punch in the halves which has been brushing every side who dares to stand up to them by the wayside.
Luai sits second in try assists with 14 (only behind Shaun Johnson who is miles ahead), but has also scored four of his own, while Cleary leads the competition in line engagements, kicking metres, 40/20s and has ten try assists of his own. All that, and he was suspended for a fortnight over his COVID breach during the lockdown.
Between them, they have eight tries, 24 try assists, 20 line break assists, 21 offloads and an unreal 33 forced dropouts. They have been simply the best.
It’s quite staggering what the pair have been able to bring to the Panthers throughout the 2020 season, given they came into it without a long-term combination or a great deal of expectation as to what they’d be able to provide immediately.
And while it might seem like weird timing to bring these points to light after last night’s effort, they still had the structure and intent to do what they had been doing throughout the season. The men in pink were simply let down by some clumsy ball control and lack of attention to detail.
They were also potentially slightly shocked at the way Brisbane played during the first half, which deserves plenty of credit. For a team with their season long gone, the first 40 minutes might give fans something to cling onto.
But back on the Panthers, and the results we have seen from Luai and Cleary this year are the results of the long-term plan Phil Gould put together during his tenure at the club.
The veteran rugby league figure cops plenty of his bungled timeline on the five-year plan, but he won’t get the plaudits he deserves now. When you look through this Panthers side who are (temporarily at least), five points clear on the competition ladder, the vast majority come out of the Panthers junior catchment and representative teams.
This is one for the true believers of the club, the fans who have stood by and watched the juniors develop, because led by Cleary and Luai they are here now. All NRL standard, and all making a difference under the coaching of Ivan Cleary to make a run for the premiership.
In fact, the only players who aren’t classified as Penrith juniors in last night’s 17 are James Tamou, Apisai Koroisau, Kurt Capewell and Zane Tetevano.
It’s rare in this day and age to see 13 of a matchday 17 actually originating at the club, and it’s a tick of approval to the long term vision.
Every side is allowed a bad day, and every side, even the best, are allowed to lose the odd game. The Panthers didn’t even have to lose to get what should be a wake-up call.
Don’t bet on average days becoming the new normal at Penrith. This side is far too talented for that to happen, and at the head of the charge are their special young halves pairing who have spent 2020 setting the rugby league world on fire.