20/04/2024

Nathan Cleary with the try to win the three-peat. (Image: Penrith Panthers/X)

The NRL has not seen a three-peat since the 1980s…until the 2023 Grand Final in which the Panthers would come back from a 24-8 deficit with 23 minutes left and score three tries with the game-winning try from Nathan Cleary, who led the comeback with his playmaking and making the right plays at the right time.

They achieved the three-peat feat within the salary cap constraints, losing high-quality talent since the 2021 season and the lack of reward for developing their juniors (NRL should take inspiration from the NBA’s contract system with rookie contracts specifically).

The Panthers will be looking to achieve the four-peat in 2024, which would be a historic achievement that would date back to 1925-1929 when the South Sydney Rabbitohs would win five in a row (yes, the Dragons won 11 in a row from 1956-1966, but that’s another conversation).

Last year

With how 2023 started in the preseason losing the World Club Challenge, to Taylan May doing his ACL and being out the entire season, to losing their franchise superstar for two months at the halfway mark of the season, as well as having injuries to Jarome Luai and Izack Tago closer to the run of the finals, it would have been a disappointing year for Penrith not to win the competition again, but understandable with valuable players absent at crucial times where Penrith needed to perform. 

Nathan Cleary was injured in round 14 and returned in round 21, with the club losing only one game in golden point to the North Queensland Cowboys 27-23.

Jarome Luai was hurt in their loss to the Parramatta Eels in round 26, and what was thought to exclude Luai from the 2023 finals, saw Luai play in the preliminary final and grand final matches for significant minutes before being taken out of the game.

The next-man-up mentality was a huge theme this season, with Jack Cogger getting significant playing time in the absence of Nathan Cleary and when Penrith subbed out Jarome Luai for Cogger to step into his spot in the grand final, it was another point in time that demonstrated how well the club recruits and develops players, as well as putting their players in the right situation, playing an influential role in the grand final next to Cleary.

After starting 1-2 in their first three games, they also lost to the Tigers in round 9 in the trip to Bathurst, as the Panthers since the World Club Challenge in 2023 lost three games playing in rainy conditions (losing the regular season opener to the Broncos).

In their first eleven games, their record was 7-4, which was their worst start to the season since making every grand final since 2020. In 2023, they were still in first place with this 7-4 record, losing twice within the first four weeks of the competition and then losing back-to-back games in rounds 8 and 9. 

They lost those four games by 8 points combined, which showed how hard it is to beat Penrith, let alone by a significant margin.

Parramatta beat Penrith twice in 2023, the only team to achieve this success against the premiers and in the second meeting in 2023, they lost by 14 points (the only double-digit loss by the club).

Their five losses had a differential of 12 points combined before the 14-point loss in the second last round of the regular season. 

Penrith had the second-best attack (only behind Brisbane in overall stats) and the best defence in the competition.

Squad Changes

Ins: Paul Alamoti (Canterbury Bulldogs), Daine Laurie (Wests Tigers), Brad Schneider (Hull KR, Super League)

Outs: Eddie Blacker (unsigned), Jack Cogger (Newcastle Knights), Stephen Crichton (Canterbury Bulldogs), Zac Hosking (Canberra Raiders), Tom Jenkins (Newcastle Knights), Spencer Leniu (Sydney Roosters), Jaeman Salmon (Canterbury Bulldogs), Chris Smith (unsigned)

Track Watch

Jarome Luai was ruled out of the World Club Challenge, with young gun Jack Cole taking his place for the matchup with Wigan Warriors.

The young playmaker is the only contracted five-eighth long-term, with Daine Laurie contracted just for this season and Brad Schneider, who can also play halfback, is contracted until the end of the 2025 season.

Taylan May is tracking well since his season-ending injury before the 2023 season and is expected to play left centre on the inside of winger Sunia Turava.

Liam Henry is a front rower untapped in potential and has huge wraps by the club. With Spencer Leniu having signed with the Sydney Roosters, that is a name to keep an eye on this season and possibly for a spot in the round-one lineup.

There are a couple of bench spots up for grabs, with Tyrone Peachey and Lindsay Smith most likely to have their spots locked in, and with Scott Sorensen to be back into the starting lineup in round 1, expect the battle for the last two spots to be between Matt Eisenhuth, Liam Henry and Luke Garner.

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What to Expect

The Panthers are seeking another premiership, and each year, they try to win the competition with this group of players.

With the five-eighth spot up in the air for now, three players are competing for it, so expect the battle for the number 6 jersey to get heated.

While Penrith has lost Jarome Luai, Penrith will use its salary cap to extend Taylan May, Mitch Kenny and Sunia Turava.

It’s a big year for

Nathan Cleary

Nathan Cleary has done almost everything except win the Dally M medal and win a World Club Challenge, and if he can put together a year where he wins Origin, can play 20 games and more for Penrith without injuries or suspension.

Assuming that Penrith dominates the way they have the past three years, it can be a big year for him in terms of having luck go his way and having a season where he’s fully available for a whole season without interruptions.

Biggest unanswered question?

Who will be the long-term five-eighth when Jarome Luai leaves?

This will be answered next year around the same time as these previews.

Considering Jack Cole headed to the World Club Challenge ahead of Brad Schneider, who has experience in the Super League and more NRL experience, it speaks volumes of how they believe Cole will perform with consistent playing time, being contracted until the end of the 2026 season.

Coach Index

Ivan Cleary – Safe

As long as his son is the halfback for the club, Ivan will always be safe as the head coach of the club, especially after winning three in a row and having four consecutive trips to the Grand Final.

Predicted Round 1 Lineup

  1. Dylan Edwards
  2. Sunia Turava 
  3. Izack Tago
  4. Taylan May
  5. Brian To’o
  6. Jarome Luai
  7. Nathan Cleary
  8. James Fisher-Harris
  9. Soni Luke
  10. Moses Leota
  11. Scott Sorensen
  12. Liam Martin
  13. Isaah Yeo
  14. Tyrone Peachey
  15. Lindsay Smith
  16. Liam Henry
  17. Luke Garner

*Paul Alamoti could replace Sunia Turava if the Fijian winger is hindered by his knee injury

Ladder Prediction

Expect Penrith to be in the top 2. In the three-peat stretch, they were only second place in 2021, as Melbourne grabbed the minor premiership that year.

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