With three rounds remaining in the regular season, the Penrith Panthers are in the box seat to clinch its first minor premiership since 2003.
Not rated by many as premiership contenders this season after finishing tenth in 2019, the Panthers have surprised many in 2020, winning their first two matches, including defeating defending premiers the Sydney Roosters in Round 1, before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on Australia.
This resulted in the NRL season being paused as state border closures and strict lockdown and social distancing measures established to slow the spread of coronavirus made it logistically impossible for the season to continue past the weekend of 21-22 March.
But since the season resumption on 28 May the Panthers have been the most impressive team, winning 13 of their last 14 matches, including the last 12 in succession, to surge to the top of the ladder with three rounds of the home-and-away season still to play.
Going into this weekend the mountain men sit in top spot on the ladder three points clear of the second-placed Melbourne Storm and can strengthen their grip on the JJ Giltinan Shield with another victory this Friday night.
However, standing in their way are the Parramatta Eels, who were the last club to defeat the Panthers back in Round 5 and are the only team to take two premiership points off the Penrith this season.
That came at a time when the Eels were being touted as the premiership favourites, with that 16-10 victory over their western Sydney rivals seeing them start a season 5-0 for the first time since 1986, the year of their most recent premiership win.
In that match, the Panthers led 10-0 after an hour’s play before a three-try burst inside five minutes saw the Eels claim the victory at Bankwest Stadium.
It was the first match in Sydney where crowds were allowed back into the stands after the season resumption, with matches in Rounds 2 (before the season suspension), 3 and 4 played with fans locked out of stadiums for the first time in Australian rugby league history.
But a lot has changed since then, and the Eels’ form has bordered on inconsistent, the team recently humiliated 38-0 by the South Sydney Rabbitohs at home before rebounding with an unconvincing 24-18 win over the Warriors on the Central Coast last Sunday.
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By contrast, the Panthers haven’t tasted defeat for nearly three months, and their 12 consecutive wins have seen them break the club’s previous record of eight, as set in their premiership-winning season of 2003.
Understandably a lot of comparisons have been made between the current side coached by Ivan Cleary and the class of 2003 that under the coaching of John Lang went from wooden spooners in 2001 to premiers only two years later.
A lot of their good form has been attributed to the halves pairing of Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai, with the former having redeemed himself both on and off the field after being suspended upon the season resumption for featuring in a viral TikTok video.
Cleary is firming in favouritism to regain the No. 7 guernsey for New South Wales in the State of Origin series, which is being played in the post-season for the first time in history, having missed the deciding game last year due to injury.
Apisai Koroisau, a one-time premiership winner with the Rabbitohs, has also been solid in the hooking role, having returned to the Panthers after four years at the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles.
Many of the Panthers players have also been quoted as saying that they don’t want to be rested ahead of the finals because they just simply enjoy winning on the field.
Having won their last 12 matches in a row, not only would five more wins take them to the grand final, but they would also equal the Bulldogs’ run of 17 straight victories achieved in 2002, a year in which major salary cap breaches turned a certain premiership into a wooden spoon.
A win in the grand final (18) would see them break the record for the most consecutive victories in the NRL era (1998-present), but they would still be one short of the all-time longest winning streak (19) held by the Sydney Roosters in 1975.
While the Panthers will start favourites to defeat the Eels this Friday night, which would take them five points clear of the Melbourne Storm at the top of the ladder, the southerners, currently based on the Sunshine Coast, will start favourites to defeat the Cowboys on Sunday.
This would leave the mountain men needing to defeat the Cowboys in Round 19 to officially seal the minor premiership with the Storm to play the Wests Tigers later that round.
They’ll also start favourites to defeat the last-placed Bulldogs in Round 20, which would give them a good warm-up for what will be their fifth finals series in seven years.
But first things first: revenge will be on the minds of Ivan Cleary’s men as they seek to reverse their Round 5 loss to the Parramatta Eels, and they’ll have the support of a socially distanced Panthers Stadium crowd in their corner.
Unlike the game in Round 5, for which only 500 or so fans were permitted, a maximum crowd of 5625 – a quarter of the capacity at Panthers Stadium – will be allowed through the gates for the second western Sydney derby of season 2020.
It’s expected the majority of the crowd will be members of both clubs, though expect Panthers fans to outnumber their Eels counterparts this Friday night.