We can finally say the Penrith Panthers are the best team in the NRL without any caveats.
They’ve been the best all-around team in rugby league for two seasons now, but we haven’t been able to actually say so until their 14-12 win over South Sydney in the grand final on Sunday night.
And it just feels right.
Penrith lost the 2020 grand final to an experienced Melbourne side after winning 17 straight games and claiming the minor premiership.
But that wasn’t so much a game of football as it was an ambush.
The Storm scored all 26 of their points in the first 45 minutes and then gritted their teeth for the last 35 as Penrith’s brilliance dragged them off the canvas and Melbourne punched themselves in the face by having two players sin-binned in the final 10 minutes.
There’s a reason there’s a debate about whether a grand final is the best way to decide a champion at the end of a long season.
When Melbourne won, you got the sense they were just better at winning that game, not necessarily the better football team.
And the Panthers never tried to hide the fact that the pain from that game was firing their pistons all year.
Penrith went the long way in 2021
Thankfully, to avoid any possibility of questions about the validity of this 2021 title, Penrith not only won the grand final, but also beat the Storm in their preliminary final a week earlier.
In fact, the Panthers did it all this season.
The first two weeks of the season they scored 52 points while conceding none, then they beat Melbourne in the first grand final rematch, all as part of a 12-game winning streak that included a 50-plus game and three 40-plus games.
During that time they dared to have fun and were deemed villains for the way they showed it because the common thinking was they hadn’t won anything yet … you know, except for a lot of rugby league games.
They were victims of their own success when the State of Origin period saw their streak ended by the Tigers, and Origin really took a toll when it robbed them of halfback and captain Nathan Cleary, who missed six weeks with a shoulder injury.
During that stretch they played the Storm again and lost.
Melbourne, in the midst of their own 19-game winning streak, were unofficially crowned the best team in rugby league despite the Panthers also missing Brian To’o, Isaah Yeo, Apisai Koroisau and James Fisher-Harris.
All the while, South Sydney was putting together a 10-match winning run and dropping 40 on teams for fun, which saw them installed as premiership contenders, with the Panthers seemingly the boring old toy that pundits didn’t want to play with anymore.
When Cleary said after the grand final that “a lot of people wrote us off”, it had the ring of truth instead of the usual lies top teams tell themselves as motivation.
Eventually Cleary returned and, while things were a bit disjointed, they were still tied with minor premiers Melbourne on competition points at season’s end.
The loss to the Rabbitohs in the first week of the finals hinted at vulnerability, but from there they just kept winning, even if they did have to go the long way.
Winning ugly in the finals
The team that started the season racking up cricket scores averaged just a try-and-a-half through the finals, but when it came down to it, two and a couple of goals were enough.
And if last year’s decider was just barely a football game, this year’s was the epitome of a tough rugby league game.
Brutal through the middle with just enough flash from the halves and outside backs to keep the ‘I only watch one game a year’ crowd interested.
Penrith rectified their shellshocked 2020 performance by jumping out of the gates, sending a series of left-side raids South Sydney’s way before Jarome Luai sent Matt Burton scything through a gap with such ease that it hinted at a more one-sided contest that never eventuated.
They dominated possession and peppered the South Sydney line, with a few untimely handling errors helping the Rabbitohs’ tiring defence.
Nathan Cleary’s kicking game shone through, with five dropouts forced and even the rare sets that ended within their own half being turned half-decent by his booming right foot.
And then came the decisive moment of brilliance, when giant winger Stephen Crichton, perhaps fed up with the service he had (or more pointedly hadn’t) been receiving from his inside men, instead plucked Rabbitohs five-eighth Cody Walker’s 67th-minute pass out of the air.
He barely broke stride as he set off 40 metres to the tryline, exorcising one last demon with more poetic revenge for Suliasi Vunivalu’s runaway thievery in 2020.
Cleary may have missed out on the Dally M this year and last, but getting the Clive Churchill Medal from your dad is always a nice consolation prize.
“This doesn’t even feel real. I’m pinching myself,” Cleary told ABC Sport after the game.
For two seasons, Penrith have been the strongest and the fastest. They’ve got the best halfback and kicker in the game. And between the father-son coach and captain combo to all the local Western Sydney juniors in their side, they’ve even probably got the best story in the league.
The Penrith Panthers are, quite simply, the best.
It feels nice to finally be able to say it.