Panthers on the brink of history with a quick start to title defense, but the biggest test awaits

Penrith have become just the third team in the NRL era to start a title defense with four consecutive wins as they make an emotional start in their bid to become the second team to successfully defend their title.

With the Bulldogs struggling next Sunday ahead of home clashes with Brisbane and Canberra, they have a decent chance of becoming the first premierships to win eight straight early in their title defence.

After upsetting Parramatta in the 2001 Grand Final, the Knights won six in a row to start the following season before a defeat at Brisbane while the Melbourne side in 2012 backed the following year to win seven on the trot before losing 24-20 against Canberra. with Blake Ferguson scoring two tries and four goals for the Raiders.

The fact that the Panthers beat three teams from the 2021 Finals in the first four rounds, plus the Dragons, and were without star halfback Nathan Cleary until last weekend makes their start hot even more impressive.

They are 19.5-point favorites to account for Canterbury, who recalled half-back Kyle Flanagan for the first time this season after going 44-0 at the hands of the Storm in Melbourne last weekend.

As the Panthers purr, club vice-chairman and legendary half-back Greg Alexander says the real test of their league titles will come later in the season.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

In the event of injuries, Origin unavailability or a drop in form, will the Panthers be able to invoke something special like last year when they were upset in the first week of the playoffs, but then have pulled off a hat-trick of narrow wins over Parramatta, Melbourne and South Sydney to lift the premiership trophy for the first time since 2003.

“They just have to make sure they go through to the end of the season still playing on the right foot and that the individuals are motivated, the young players are developing. All of those things – there are a thousand things that need to go good for winning a competition,” the Fox League commentator said.

“The coaching staff have to make sure none of those key areas slip. What made them the team they were in 2021, they must maintain. Let it be with a new approach. If their motivation calls for something different, I’m sure the coaches will recognize it.

“We’ve seen reigning premiers start the season very well in the past and for some reason that intensity, that extra 1% that wins you a competition, that pushes you to win, can kind of go away.

“That’s the key to going back. Because it’s such a rare thing, it shows how difficult it is.

“They must be as desperate to win in 2022 as they were in 2021.”

Cleary’s late start to the season after off-season shoulder surgery was almost an afterthought for Penrith with co-captain Isaah Yeo relying on his ball game dimensions at the lock, garnering 12 perfect Dally M vocals on four releases. to sit at the top of the leaderboard.

Penrith missed the final, finishing ninth, after their first victory as Premier in 1991 and after upsetting the Roosters in 2003 they returned to the playoffs the following year before retiring in the qualifying Grand Final at the hands of the eventual Canterbury prime ministers.

The Panthers celebrate with the NRL Premiership Trophy

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Flanagan’s Kerfuffle

Canterbury’s decision to bring Flanagan back in the No.7 shirt after appearing in the NSW Cup for the first four rounds has sparked much debate.

Alexander, a 1991 premiership-winning halfback at Penrith who also represented NSW and Australia, said he thought it was a relatively simple case of Trent Barrett dropping a third-tier player in its pecking order, then giving it a try after the other two options. did not work.

Jake Averillo spent the first two games at half-back before Brandon Wakeham was given a run in the final fortnight. Alexander believes Flanagan has the potential to lock down the role, but he cannot be expected to perform miracles after Canterbury have been off pace in recent weeks.

“I tell you what he would rather be playing as a first year than racing in the NSW Cup again. He could have come into this season wondering if he would get another crack not having been the first pick or the second pick,” he said.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 16: Kyle Flanagan of the Bulldogs handles the ball during a Canterbury Bulldogs NRL training session at Belmore Sports Ground on March 16, 2022 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

“He has another chance, simple as that. You try to catch it. Christ is an opportunity – sometimes it comes in a weird way but what is he going to do? Say no thank you, I’m not ready? That’s how absurd it seems when you think about it. He’s no different than any other player who sits in the reserve category and because of injury or bad form he has an opportunity.

“He’s a big boy, he played around 40 first-year games. It’s the game, it’s sport in general.

“He just has to play a solid game. Last year, when he played 12 freshman games, he was playing on a team that didn’t score a lot of points, didn’t have a great season. It’s very difficult as a half-back to play well in this situation. In the end, you are one of 13 players and it’s up to you to play well. Barrett will have his ideas of what he needs to do to play well and that would revolve around kicking good and getting the team to where they need to be.

Alexander sees similarities to Kevin Walters at Brisbane last year when he went through several half-time combinations before the club decided they needed to bring in a big-name signing like Adam Reynolds.

Canterbury solved part of their dilemma with the signing of Panthers premiership winner Matt Burton, but Alexander warned he would never be a chief playmaker.

“I can sympathize with Barrett trying to make a decision on those three because there are failures with all three in what they bring to the team at seven,” he said. .

“Ivan Cleary wasn’t sure who to play at half-back when Nathan was out – do I play Burto or Jarome Luai? Their skill set didn’t lend itself to being a natural selection. This isn’t easy sometimes. Kevvy discovered it last year and Trent is discovering it now.

Big final hangover or postponement

First in NRL era after four rounds the following year

1998 Broncos in 1999: 0-4
’99 Storm: 0-4
2000 Broncos: 3-1
’01 Knights: 4-0
’02 Roosters: 3-1
’03 Panthers: 3-1
’04 Bulldogs: 1-3
’05 Tigers: 2-2
’06 Broncos: 1-3
’07 Storm: 2-2*
Sea Eagles 2008: 0-4
’09 Storm: 4-0*
’10 Dragoons: 3-1
’11 Sea Eagles: 2-2
’12 Storm: 4-0
’13 Roosters: 2-2
’14 Rabbitohs: 3-1
’15 Cowboys: 2-2
’16 Sharks: 2-2
’17 Storm: 2-2
’18 Roosters: 3-1 (went back to back)
’19 Roosters: 2-2
’20 Storm: 2-2
’21 Panthers: 4-0

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