Penrith Panthers gave everything in their pursuit of their first NRL Championship since 2003 in this year’s Grand Final but just came up short against Melbourne Storm.
That defeat was all the more agonising because their opponents played the final 10 minutes a man light. Storm ended the game with 11 men on the field after a second sin-binning but somehow managed to hold on thanks to the commanding first-half lead they built up.
It left the Panthers with regrets about how they started their biggest game for 17 years. After topping the regular season ladder and beating two of Sydney’s biggest clubs in the Roosters and the Rabbitohs to reach the Grand Final, there is plenty of positives to take from the campaign, though. Penrith won 20 of their 23 NRL matches in 2020 and some telling statistics show they were among the best at other key aspects of play. Stephen Crichton got 17 tries and only three players managed more.
Kicker Nathan Cleary scored the second-most points of any NRL player in the entire campaign, and he was also third best for goals scored. He also kicked the most metres and nobody had their foot on the ball more. While interceptions and offloads weren’t a major feature of the Panthers’ rugby this year, Jarome Luai finished joint top of the try assists table and was also second for linebreak assists. Apisai Koroisau saw plenty of the ball as was one of only two NRL players that had over 2,500 receipts and put in more than 1,000 tackles.
Penrith also provided smart support play with James Fisher-Harris making a whopping 161 decoy runs, with Cleary also frequently available if teammates needed to pass into his boot. These positive stats explain why they are made clear favourites at 7/2 rugby league odds for the 2021 NRL Grand Final. As they just came up short against Melbourne, who are only 13/2 chances to retain their crown next season, there are some small areas of room for improvement. Crichton made 32 mistakes overall and 27 handling errors which suggest he could’ve scored even more try if he can take the ball in better.
Discipline has also been an occasional issue. Five Panthers players conceded nine or more penalties in the course of the campaign with Luai the main offender on 14. This is something which could be tightened up.
There is enough in these statistics which focus on individual performance rather than the team overall to suggest that Penrith can again be a force next term. The only downside is the loss of their captain and veteran prop James Tamou, who joins the Wests Tigers for the next couple of seasons.
Dressing room and on-pitch leaders are often difficult to replace, but bookmakers clearly believe that the Panthers can respond to both their NRL final defeat and the skipper moving on. Penrith has often found it difficult to follow-up on a fine season, so must prove worthy of market confidence behind them going into 2021