Penrith on precipice of greatness in Australian sport

Scott Bailey and Jasper Bruce |

Will the Panthers make it four in a row at the end of the NRL season after their treble in October?
Will the Panthers make it four in a row at the end of the NRL season after their treble in October?

Penrith stand on the precipice of greatness, knowing they are one title away from laying claim to being the greatest men’s sporting team in Australia this century.

For years, the Panthers have built their dynasty around trying to mimic the heroics of others.

But this summer they hit a snag.

Put simply, no men’s team in a fully-professional Australian league during the 2000s have achieved what Penrith are trying to do this year with a fourth straight premiership.

“We’ve been trying to find motivation from other teams that have won four, but there’s just not really many out there,” Nathan Cleary told AAP.

“It would be cool.”

NSW’s women’s cricket team won 10 straight WNCL titles between 2005-06 and 2014-15. 

But even that largely came in a time when the domestic-overs competition was still not yet professional and Cricket NSW was leading the way on pay for women.

Beyond them, Brisbane and Hawthorn won three straight in the AFL, and the Sydney Kings and New Zealand Breakers three in a row in the NBL.

Victoria have done likewise in the Sheffield Shield, while Melbourne City won the A-League women’s crown three times between 2016 and 2018 and Brisbane also won three straight in the NRLW.

Globally, a four-peat has been feat achieved by the likes Bayern Munich, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain in the major European football leagues and the Crusaders in Super Rugby.

But in Australia injuries, age, salary caps, rivals and potentially motivation have eventually caught up with the top teams.

Cleary hunger
Nathan Cleary reckons the Panthers are hungrier than ever to win in 2024. (Mark Evans/AAP PHOTOS)

The latter of which won’t be an issue for the Panthers, according to Cleary.

“Even more so than ever, we are hungry to win a premiership,” he said. 

“The one thing about winning is that it’s such an addictive feeling that you just want to keep having it over and over again. It’s no different this year.”

This year will present Penrith with arguably their greatest challenge.

Even prior to the salary-cap era, no side has won four premierships in a row since the mighty St George team that won 11 between 1955 and 1965 in a time before limited tackles.

The Panthers have lost strike centre Stephen Crichton and impact prop Spencer Leniu, adding to a long list of star talent forced out of the club since the end of 2021 due to the cap.

“You always need an ounce of luck to win it,” Penrith great and director Greg Alexander said.

“But especially on the back of losing players over the last couple of seasons.

“The four we’ve lost over the last few years in (Viliame) Kikau, (Apisai) Koroisau, Crichton, and Leniu. All four would be in the discussion for best in their position for the years they left.

“It’s a big difference between good young players and the best in their position in the competition. 

“With those gone, an ounce of luck is important in keeping the most important players on the field.”

Penrith will also contend with the looming exit of Jarome Luai for Wests Tigers next year, but have previously had no issue casting such issues aside to find success.

Working in their favour is the fact that only three top-30 players are aged above 30, something Alexander believes plays to the fact they are yet to run out of puff or drive.

“That makes a difference. The fact it is a pretty young team compared to others,” Alexander said.

“They’ve done something that no one has been able to do since Parramatta in the early 1980s. I just don’t think you can lump them in with what has gone on in the past.

“They have done it three times, and I certainly won’t be saying they won’t be motivated for a fourth. 

“It’s a different group of players from anything we’ve come across.”

Last year’s runners-up Brisbane again loom as one of the chief challengers, particularly if Reece Walsh and the powerful forward pack can replicate their 2024 form.

But they too have taken hits over the off-season, with Kurt Capewell, Tom Flegler, Herbie Farnworth and Keenan Palasia all exiting.

Papenhuyzen
A fit-again, focused Ryan Papenhuyzen is like having a new player for the Storm. (Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS)

The Sydney Roosters look the contenders who have gained the most, with Dom Young and Leniu joining ahead of a blockbuster clash with the Broncos in the second game in Las Vegas on Saturday.

Melbourne have virtually gained a player in fit-again fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen, while it’s hard to see Cameron Munster and Harry Grant not being better than last season.

Kalyn Ponga also has the potential to spark Newcastle, while last year’s other feel-good story, the Warriors, must fight to avoid a drop off following their return to the top four.

Beyond them, South Sydney loom as the joker in the pack after their 2023 capitulation, with Parramatta the other obvious threat from outside last year’s top eight.

“There’s a raft of challengers,” Alexander said. 

“I thought South Sydney last year were in for a big year and halfway through the season they led the comp. 

“I know there is a bit of faith to be taken given the way they finished the year, but I am willing to say they can be the challenger. 

“Brisbane will be thereabouts. The Roosters had so much to deal with last year, so they can finish higher in the top eight than they did last year. 

“And never discount Melbourne because Papenhuyzen has looked good. And any side that has Munster, Hughes and Grant in them is a real danger.”

AAP