Penrith Panthers players celebrate winning the 2022 NRL grand final.
Penrith could continue celebrating for years to come, Parramatta great Brett Kenny says. Image by Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS
  • rugby league

Penrith defy NRL’s levelling out to reach for history

Scott Bailey September 30, 2023

Brett Kenny has the current Penrith side on the verge of being the greatest in modern rugby league.

Greater than his Parramatta side of the early 1980s, and therefore greater than any other in the limited-tackles era.

One month after launching their ‘hunting history’ mission statement, Penrith are one win away from achieving it.

Victory in Sunday’s grand final against Brisbane will make them the first side since Kenny’s Eels (1981-1983) to win three straight titles.

It would also made them only the second team to achieve the feat since limited tackles were introduced in 1966; when rugby league became the game it is today.

But the circumstances around Penrith’s run make it even more remarkable.

On paper, Kenny has that great Eels side marginally ahead of Penrith: they had more Australia internationals, and five hall-of-fame players.

But Parramatta’s triple champions could not have existed under the salary cap.

Between the Eels’ premiership years, the only significant loss from the 1981 team was an aging Bob O’Reilly to retirement.

Penrith’s list of departures since the 2021 grand final include Matt Burton, Apisai Koroisau, Viliame Kikau and Kurt Capewell, all to other clubs.

“At the end of 1982 there were five of us who became internationals,” Kenny, who played in all those Eels’ premierships, told AAP. 

“In today’s game we would each have come back and been on about $800,000.

“If there was a salary cap, we wouldn’t all fit. Some would have to go.

“When you look at what Penrith have been able to do it has been a lot better than what we were able to do, just because of the challenges they have had.”

Penrith’s defence has also turned back the clock.

While the amount of points scored per game has increased by 50 per cent from the early 1980s in the day of the five-metre offside, Penrith’s numbers are close to on par with teams from that era.

In big games, their stats are even more remarkable, with an average of just 8.25 points per game conceded in their last eight finals matches.

It’s something that will be key to shutting down flying fullback Reece Walsh and blunting the Broncos forwards in Sunday’s decider.

“They strangle you. They get hold of you and tighten their defence up,” Kenny said.

“I look at how Brisbane played (in the preliminary final against the Warriors) in the first half, throwing offloads all the time. 

“That’s how they will have to start the game, moving Penrith around.

“While they were very good with their support play the other night, can they do it against Penrith?

“Are they going to be able to find the gaps? Are they going to be able to get their hands free against a side like Penrith?”

The Panthers have won 84 per cent of their games since round one of 2020, when they ran out a team including nine players no longer at the club.

“It’s about building a system for players to come into, but also the culture where everything is built off hard work and preparation and trust,” halfback Nathan Cleary said.

“It’s also just the encouragement of people being able to be themselves and enjoy coming in here.

“Sometimes with pressure you can forget that and lose it. But that’s something that we’ve held the whole way through.”

The greatest or not, Penrith see no reason why their run must end.

Parramatta made a fourth grand final in 1984, winning a fourth title in 1986, but spent 11 years out of the finals following the retirement of Mick Cronin and Ray Price.

At Penrith, Kenny sees little likelihood of a slowdown.

“They’re going to lose players because of the salary cap, but they do it very well,” he said.

“Whether they can win in 2024 or 2025, who’s to say? But they’ll be up there for many years.”