It seems impossible. Yet, it is happening. Traditionally, the system isn’t designed for teams to continuously protect their championship title, let alone securing victory three times consecutively.
The salary cap operates like a greased pole, a team might think they’ve peaked at the summit, only to slid back down again. It’s a system that encourages underperformers and yet penalises the successful ones.
However, over recent years, the Penrith Panthers have demonstrated that they can beat the system, by adopting their own unique, superior model of operation.
Although they don’t declare it publicly, internally, the Panthers compare their operational model to a game of Lego.
The players are considered as Lego pieces. Should a piece be removed due to injury, suspension or a lucrative offer from another club, that piece is swiftly replaced with a similarly shaped one, though possibly a different colour, fitting perfectly into the existing structure.
Post their 2021 Grand Final victory over South Sydney, the Panthers have lost two high-profile players each season, along with numerous quality secondary and fringe primary-grade players who provide crucial depth across a draining seven-month tournament.
Concluding 2021, the club said farewell to Matt Burton and Kurt Capewell. Concluding 2022, Viliame Kikau and Api Koroisau bid goodbye. The end of 2023 will see Stephen Crichton and Spencer Leniu depart.
Nothing is guaranteed in rugby league, but the probability of the Panthers clinching their third premiership title, making them the first team to do so since the legendary Parramatta squads of 1981-83, seems almost a sure thing.
Their recent 28-0 shutout against Cronulla at BlueBet Stadium further highlighted this could be the closest year yet for competition… for second spot.
In his second game post a hamstring tear, halfback Nathan Cleary dominated Cronulla with precision 40/20s, sideline conversions and a range of precise short and long kicks in general play.
Most teams would falter without a player of Cleary’s calibre, evident in the Souths performance when fullback Latrell Mitchell is out injured, but Cleary’s six-game absence left minimal disruption in the Panther’s squad.
When Cleary sustained the injury in the first half against St George Illawarra on June 9, replacement Jack Cogger proved a perfect fit, or Lego piece if you will. Just before half time, Cogger exhibited an impeccable cross-field kick, landing right into the hands of winger Brian To’o for a corner try. As Cogger later candidly stated, “I’ve trained there all week… I know my job.”
Replacing Api Koroisau, Mitch Kenny, is another key brick this season. Despite their differences, it didn’t take long for Kenny to find his place, his versatility providing the Panthers an extra middle forward when required.
All these strategic selections and movements highlight the crucial role Phil Gould and his team of behind-the-scenes “Lego Masters” have played in fostering the club’s sustained success.
Penrith’s broad junior development program, along with the successful player retention strategy led by high-performance manager Matt Cameron, have contributed to the club’s winning streak. Even when rival clubs might offer players like Burton, Kikau, and Koroisau amounts exceeding their current $200,000 per season, many opt to stay on at Penrith simply because of the stability and quality the club offers.
This system has seen players such as back-rower Liam Martin re-sign, while fullback Dylan Edwards is about to extend and the club is confident of retaining Jarome Luai despite misleading reports claiming him not to be a priority.
A confident representation of an exceptional club is the demonstrated player improvement. Nathan Cleary’s two most recent backup players — Sean O’Sullivan and Cogger — started on $80,000 development contracts. Sullivan moved on to the Dolphins with a three-year deal, while Cogger is currently attracting attention from rival clubs to become their starting No.7.
The irony isn’t lost on many that the man responsible for Penrith’s player movements is Gould, the former Panthers general manager. Since his departure in April 2019, Gould, now the Bulldogs general manager of football, has signed a significant number of ex-Panthers players.
The Panthers, however, aren’t overly concerned or wary of Gould. They get it – given his deep knowledge of the talent available at Penrith, as does the Bulldogs rookie coach, Cameron Ciraldo, a former assistant to Penrith’s Ivan Cleary.
Last week, Gould, on Channel Nine, claimed the Panthers should strive for six consecutive premierships, making it unclear whether he was pressurising his former club or Ivan Cleary, with whom Gould previously had a falling out, or simply messaging the Bulldogs board, highlighting his role in Penrith’s success.
Regardless, Penrith Panthers carry the same aura as those historic Parramatta teams they seek to emulate. The feel of the game is reminiscent of the 1980s, nothing compares to the camaraderie between players, except perhaps the St George teams of the 1950s and 1960s. Those teams remained united in achievement and mateship, as do the current Panthers’ squad – many have played together since their junior years.
Now, they are currently defying the system, ascending that greased pole to collect their premierships qualifications, possibly producing performance that could actually be far superior to a mere game of Lego.