For much of the last two years, most of the focus around Penrith and their on field success has landed on Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai.
It’s a natural lens the rugby league media and fans look through. The halves do the things that ultimately lead to points. Nathan Cleary is a fairly prolific point scorer himself in his young career.
Then you’ve also got the blockbusting ball running of Brian To’o.
He’s not the first cannonball sized winger to be key to his side’s success.
Matt Utai had to ping pong off defenders so Brian To’o could run over them.
But holding this all together is a lock who was once seen as an average back-rower who could play some centre.
Isaah Yeo made his debut for the Panthers at centre. He spent much of that rookie year bouncing between centre, bench and second row.
And that’s where he stayed for much of his early career. It wasn’t until the last two games of the 2015 regular season that he played lock. There was a pretty good reason for that.
Elijah Taylor and Nigel Plum were the locks of choice during Ivan Cleary’s first stint at the club.
By the midway point of 2016 he had established himself in the second row, playing on an edge. But he was a good line runner and a reasonable defender. He wasn’t slicing teams apart.
Trent Merrin was the lock by this point in time. Even as recently as 2019 he wasn’t the lock of choice. That job was being done by James Fisher-Harris.
By 2020 though and with Fisher-Harris moving into the front row, Yeo moved to the back of the scrum where he has since unlocked his best football.
His winning percentage in the seven years before 2020 was at 46.1 percent. Since moving to lock, when he’s in the side Penrith win 91 percent of the time.
There are of course plenty of moving parts to that statistic and Yeo isn’t solely responsible for the virtual doubling of the win percentage.
But his move to lock has opened up the best of the Penrith attack, and allowed Nathan Cleary to play with a freedom few halves get to enjoy.
In round four rugby league returned to the foot of the mountains for the first time in more than 200 days.
The 2021 Premiers got to perform in front of their adoring fans for the first time since winning the competition last year.
And what a day it was.
Fans were trickling into BlueBet Stadium well before kick-off. The earthy smell of the turf hung in the air. It’s a smell that is becoming rarer and rarer as modern stadiums continue to spring up, but the family hill stirs up an unforgettable feeling of nostalgia.
As someone whose earliest footballing memories come from the old southern hill of the old Parramatta Stadium, it was a trip down memory lane.
Leaning on the fence, you could hear the collisions of reserve grade, the crowd was quiet enough you could hear the on-field chat too.
A gentle breeze wafted in from the south-west, taking the sun’s last rays of heat and carrying them into the cooling evening air.
Fans played the careful balancing game of carrying a four pack of mid-strength beer to their seats in the grandstands, while you got the odd whiff of Dencorub if the wind blew in the right direction.
The crowd filtered in faster as kick off nears. It’s their chance to see their beloved Panthers, their beloved premiers, at home once again.
And it’s a chance for RLM to watch Isaah Yeo for the full 80 minutes.
Penrith ended up winning the match 26-12 in what was a fairly comfortable performance. Most of the interest surrounding the match was Nathan Cleary’s return from off-season shoulder surgery.
Across 80 stellar minutes Yeo had racked up 19 runs for 172 metres with 58 post contact, one tackle break, 25 passes, 40 tackles, three missed tackles and one ineffective.
What the stats don’t show is his involvement in Penrith’s attack.
Those 25 passes were thrown off 36 receipts. Here’s a list of all the Penrith players who possessed the ball more than 36 times and threw more than 25 passes without playing at hooker:
- Jarome Luai (34 passes, 41 receipts)
- Nathan Cleary (38 passes, 62 receipts)
Yeo’s opposite number and also very effective lock, Cameron Murray, received the ball 26 times and passed it 15 times. Murray is still elite and Souths had significantly less ball and a much lower completion rate.
So far this season, Yeo sits at the top of the pile for general play passes with 20 per game, alongside Jake Trbojevic. Cameron Murray isn’t far behind, throwing 17 passes.
But that stuff still doesn’t show you what he does for Penrith.
Yeo’s first involvements are defensive with Penrith kicking off and it’s a real effort set.
If you read RLM’s breakdown of Christian Welch’s round one performance then you’ll know that second and third efforts from middle forwards are highly valued by sides but they’re often glossed over by commentators.
In Souths’ opening set, Yeo is there on tackles two, four and five. Then Penrith get their first use of the ball.
The Panthers got on the board early and kept things rolling pretty sweetly throughout the match. If you’ve watched them at all this season, you’ll note how crisp their passing is.
You could have forgiven them if they were a bit clunky early on this year due to Sean O’Sullivan filling in at halfback for Cleary, but they barely skipped a bit.
And much of that is down to Isaah Yeo’s effectiveness in distributing the ball to his halves.
For Penrith’s opening try he is in at first receiver, swiftly getting the ball onto Nathan Cleary who goes onto Villiame Kikau. Luai sweeps around the back, taking the pass from Kikau, breaking the line and finding Izack Tago in support who goes in to score.
As established by the statistics earlier on, Yeo plays the lock position unlike any other. He receives the ball on average 32 times per game which is second only to Jazz Tevaga, yet he passes it on average 21 times a game compared to Tevaga’s seven.
Manly’s Jake Trbojevic receives the ball on four fewer occasions and manages 20 passes per game.
Yeo also engages the line on 12 occasions per game, compared to Trbojevic’s 10.
A line engagement is when a player carries the ball to the defensive line before passing.
Yeo is essentially playing like another half.
You see that in Penrith’s first try when he doesn’t just catch the ball and shovel it on. He takes it towards the defence which forces them to pay attention to him, instead of simply sliding out onto the Panthers halves.
Penrith’s set off the kick off is pretty standard, five tackles and a kick with Yeo taking one hit up, running a decoy and helping in the tackle following the kick chase.
If there is one thing to notice concerning the way Yeo plays, it’s that he operates basically as the middle half.
He’s pointing, shouting, organising the forwards around him. It’s more involvement from a lock than you would normally see and it’s something that is hard to pick up if you’re not watching him at the ground because he’s often doing it out of camera shot.
In the 12th minute the Panthers score their second with a slick right side play that sends Stephen Crichton over.
It is of course kickstarted by Isaah Yeo in the middle of the field.
He doesn’t have to do a lot here, other than keep the ball moving. But he’s again at first receiver, taking the ball in two hands and playing more like a half than a middle forward.
Souths and the Panthers then lapse into a set for set battle, with the Rabbitohs closing to within six points courtesy of a Campbell Graham try.
Yeo is busy throughout all of this and after half an hour he’s racked up six runs for 65 metres to go with 24 tackles and one missed tackle.
It’s around here we see why he’s such an effective ball runner for Penrith.
The Panthers are rolling forward and looking to try and penetrate deep into the Souths half. Effective runs from Stephen Crichton, Liam Martin and Scott Sorensen get things going before Yeo takes his run.
Unlike the three before him, Yeo doesn’t immediately tuck the ball under his arm. He has James Fisher-Harris on his left shoulder, so he keeps the ball in two hands, uses a little footwork and throws a dummy which allows him to squeeze between Havili and Damien Cook, earning a quick play the ball and keeping Penrith on the front foot.
It’s an intelligent run that doesn’t kill the momentum of the set even if he isn’t careening into the defence at 100 miles an hour like Parramatta lock Nathan Brown.
By half time Yeo has managed 10 runs for 96 metres, 39 post contact metres, 21 tackles with 3 misses and 12 passes.
With the second term starting, Penrith get back into the swing of things, quickly stamping their authority on the match by obtaining field position and tightening the vice on Souths.
Their set following a scrum close to Souths’ line isn’t vintage, it actually gets fairly clunky with Yeo only touching the ball once for a short ball onto Spencer Leniu.
But by the end of the set they’ve clicked into gear and Taylan May has crossed in the corner for an eight point try and Penrith is up 20-6.
As the game continues to tick over, the Panthers are more than happy to just stay in the arm wrestle and Yeo gets through his work, making his tackles and running the ball when asked to.
What is noticeable though, whenever Penrith decide to shift the ball to an edge to try and make metres quickly, Yeo acts as a sort of trigger in the middle, quickly shifting the ball to his halves whose position wider of the ruck allows them to ball play at a retreating defence.
In this move we see Cleary getting the ball at second receiver and being able to isolate Kikau onto Lachlan Ilias.
The Souths halfback does a good job to hit and stick, receiving assistance from Jai Arrow and Keaon Koloamatagi to drive Kikau back.
However, that type of shape is what threatens most sides, particularly if their half doesn’t stand his ground. If Kikau isn’t stood up here by the defence, then he’s made an easy 10 metres and can find his front quickly to play the ball.
In the 59th minute we get a similar play with Yeo again jumping in at first receiver to distribute to Cleary.
Kikau and Luai are both out on the left edge but Cleary opts for a tunnel ball between the two of them which isolates Tago up against Ilias.
The Souths halfback again stands his ground to make first contact and Arrow arrives to assist.
If Yeo isn’t in at first receiver on both occasions, then it’s much harder for Penrith to run those left edge shapes that isolate defenders because Cleary has to play closer to the ruck.
It’s become a signature of Penrith over the last two years and while it doesn’t always result in linebreaks or points, it allows the Panthers easy metres down an edge, preventing them from being corralled in the middle of the field like many other sides are.
After 60 minutes Yeo’s stats line reads 14 runs for 129 metres, 47 post contact metres, 15 passes and 33 tackles.
This is around the time of the game when most locks have finished up. There are only three locks who average more than 70 minutes per game with Yeo joined by Murray and Trbojevic.
So the Penrith number 13 has another 20 minutes of work to get through.
To play virtually 80 minutes in the middle in the NRL is a difficult task that very few players manage, but Yeo remains the most effective at doing so.
He’s the only lock to have played seven games this season and missed fewer than one tackle per game. His tackle effectiveness is 95 per cent.
He doesn’t shirk his workload either, taking eight one pass hitups per game, yet he still averages nine metres per run.
Despite a 62nd minute try to Cody Walker and a brief rally by the Rabbitohs, Penrith see off their 2021 grand final opponents 26-12.
Yeo is awarded his fourth consecutive man of the match performance.
There’s a reason why Yeo is an effective ball carrier and why Penrith seem to make it out of their own end quite comfortably in most games, and it’s because they almost never send just the one man into the defensive line.
In almost every set, apart from when the backs get the sets rolling, Penrith send their forwards in pairs, or use Yeo to distribute the ball.
Whether that is him tipping the ball on to a hard-running James Fisher-Harris, or a longer ball to Nathan Cleary, the Panthers very rarely make it easy for the defenders to target a single ball carrier.
As we’ve already established, Yeo is one of the best ball-playing forwards in the game and the Panthers have found a way to utilise his unique skillset to play a style of football most other teams can’t emulate.
Plenty of other sides use ball playing forwards, and some also have a unique way of playing.
Melbourne often opt for a more powerful game before sending Brandon Smith into the fray to act as that middle ball player.
The Eels can roll through sides but then have two middle ball players in Junior Paulo and Nathan Brown who can create space for their teammates.
But the Panthers have got their style down to an art.
Isaah Yeo may just be their most important player.
History beckons for the Parramatta Eels as they head into a preliminary final against the heavily favoured North Queensland Cowboys.
Recalling a legendary player or former coach is often tempting for a club trying to recapture former glory. But rarely does it work, and often it tarnishes the coach’s legacy.
Harry Grant has filled the Melbourne Storm boots of Cameron Smith and seems to be taking the hooking position to the next level.