The Penrith Panthers are a different team in 2020.
Dubbed the cardiac kids for their ability to win games out of nowhere, the Panthers of old were entertainers.
They were defined by the Matt Moylan offload to Tyrone Peachey to steal victory at the death in Bathurst.
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An exiting bunch of young kids who were naturally gifted and encouraged to embrace that gift, relying on unstructured attack and offloads to score points.
It won them games.
It even took them to the second week of the finals, for three years in a row.
But for some reason, they just couldn’t get past that second week, always just a class below the top rung.
This year is different though and while it is unclear whether the Panthers will make it further than the semi-finals, the stats show they are at least serious about doing so this time around.
Penrith’s success in the recent four years has papered over their inability to get the basics right and in turn show respect for what it means to have possession of the ball.
Too often they were impatient and it was linked with their stuttering attack in the opposition red zone.
The Panthers would turn to second-phase play and lateral movement to try and get around the defence.
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This season though with the addition of Apisai Koroisau, they have embraced the greatest strength at their disposal – their forward pack – to generate momentum and space to attack and score points.
There is also a harder edge to what Penrith is doing without the ball in hand.
The signs were there before the season even began, the trial game against Parramatta in Bega, where the line speed was fast and first-up contact solid from both sides.
They’ve maintained the rage too, conceding 98 points in the opening seven rounds of the competition – their best defensive record since 1999.
The numbers below are telling of just how much they have improved in getting the fundamentals right.
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Of course, the loss of James Maloney has helped on the missed tackles front – but not nearly enough to account for such a dramatic improvement in defence.
Maloney averaged 4.9 missed tackles per game during his stint at Penrith while his replacement, Jarome Luai, misses on average 2.6 – so not a massive difference.
While past premiers like the Roosters have been able to win competitions while still not completing at a high rate, that always came back to their strong on-goal defence.
They could give up cheap field position without always having to worry about conceding points.
Penrith, on the other hand, lacked the defensive fortitude and attitude to deal with the adversity you put yourself under with low completion rates.
There seems to have been a recognition that no longer can they rely on miraculous last-minute plays or comebacks.
That mentality won’t win you premierships.
The purchase of Koroisau can’t be discounted here.
A premiership winner who can both provide spark in attack and experience to regain control in the big moments, he dictates Penrith’s tempo up the middle.
Alongside Cleary’s pinpoint kicking game (he averages a competition-high 479 kicking metres per game), there is no need anymore to always shift the footy and look for that extra pass which leads to that extra mistake.
Instead, they can just hand the ball off to one of Brian To’o and Josh Mansour and watch two of the league’s best metre eaters get them on the front foot.
Then it is a simple case of keeping the play-the-balls fast, having Koroisau roll out of dummy-half and quickly feed it on to their big men who are in sublime form.
At times there will be variation – Koroisau spotting a tired defender out of position and ducking through a hole or an early shift to the barnstorming Viliame Kikau or enigmatic Stephen Crichton.
Perhaps it at times gets too predictable but at least there is a method to Penrith’s game plan this year.
With the new six-again rule the ball there is even more of an emphasis on holding onto the ball, making tackles and increasing the amount of time you get in possession.
Momentum is key.
At the moment, the Panthers are doing all the little things right.
It is a sign that they have evolved as a team to respect the ball and in turn earn respect from the opposition.
Proof that the Panthers know they can be the real deal in 2020.