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“If it was going to be a tough game, if it was going to be a grind, well we’re good at that.”
That’s how Ivan Cleary reflected on his side’s attitude following their 2021 premiership win.
A Penrith side that featured many players held together by strapping tape and a will to win. They could have had shares in Elastoplast such was the strapping required.
In another sport, they’d probably be called “mentality monsters”. A side with an incorruptible will to win that has simply forgotten how to lose.
The Panthers are now this remorseless march of molten lava. Run from them, dread them, they arrive all the same. They hustle, bustle and harass their opponents. There’s no minute of respite from this Penrith side even when it looks like they’re struggling for fluency. Give them an inch, they’ll go the length of the field.
Eight games into 2022 and they’re undefeated. They’re on an 11 match unbeaten run since the end of last season. In their last 17 matches, they have lost once. Since 2020 they have lost just six games.
Ivan Cleary, the head of these boys from the foot of the mountains often seems unmoved in the coach’s box. He’s not breathing fire like Craig Bellamy, but he’s not quite as comatose as Wayne Bennett. The most animated he’s seemingly been was his goodbye kiss to the Wests Tigers fans abusing him in 2020.
But he’s got a handle on the beat that Penrith plays to. He’s taken what were essentially a bunch of kids and produced fire. That’s his magic trick. And where some teams falter after a taste of defeat, or others get their heads stuck in the clouds after success, this team remains firmly on the ground.
There was no receding back to the pack after coming so close yet finishing so far from the ultimate prize in 2020. They were back in 2021, more determined than ever. And in 2022 they have picked up from where they left off.
How can they have this drive? How can they have such an iron will after everything last season took out of them? Nathan Cleary missed the first month of football but his team barely missed him. Kurt Capewell, Matt Burton and Brent Naden all left. No matter, there’s another local boy to fill the void. Izack Tago, Taylan May. Brian To’o hasn’t been seen for six weeks.
Penrith has always been seen to be on the outskirts of town. A city of supposed undesirables and recently a team full of “arrogance”. Over an hour from Sydney where the game started in Australia and after 2003, a team more often than not on the outside looking in.
Now they’re the pinnacle of the game. The chased and the hunted. But unlike teams that fall as prey to the chasing pack nipping at their heels, they’ve turned the tables.
It doesn’t matter who you are, you don’t hunt Penrith, they hunt you. They have the fire in the belly, they have the drive and they have the will. They know you don’t, and they’ll pin you on the ropes, pummelling you until the towel is thrown in. Led by James Fisher-Harris, no quarter is given, for when the big dog barks the rest of his pack follows.
Each game you can predict what the Panthers are thinking, and it’s simply this, “Pain”. The pain they’re going to inflict on their opponents and the pain barriers they will run through in pursuit of winning.
They say there is a fine line between arrogance and confidence. But wouldn’t you be arrogant if you’d forgotten how to lose? The attitude they take into a game is one of never accepting defeat. If they’re challenged on the field, then they will rise to meet that challenge.
In the words of Muhammad Ali, “If you ever think of beating me, you better wake up and apologise”.
Each week the question is asked, will they lose? And the answer is a resounding, NO.
You wait to see when the success has seeped into their subconscious, when that extra effort isn’t made because they have already been to the top of the mountain. But it doesn’t happen. Instead they inflict that on their opponents. When those other sides can no longer go with them, when they have nothing left, Penrith powers over them because the Panthers have taken everything from them.
Just ask the Titans. They were up 4-0 against Penrith in round eight. They led at half time. A rarity in itself. Then seven minutes after half time that had evaporated.
They never got back into the game from there. They were valiant but the Panthers did what they do, and scored three consecutive tries.
In round six, Brisbane trailed 12-6 at half time. They had led 6-0. A surprise. An upset on the cards? Well, it never really felt like that. Penrith felt inevitable.
When the dust settled, when the fire and the fury of the Panthers had made their mark, the final scoreline read 40-12. 28 of those 40 points coming in under half an hour.
When Penrith come after you, it’s a black blur. It’s speed, precision and power wrapped up into 13 men moving in unison. The blowtorch is applied and eventually the opposition wilt, unable to stand the heat.
No more apparent is this than at home. Their home where they have not lost in 21 consecutive matches. There it’s not just the 13 men on the field you have to contend with, it’s the 20,000 screaming fans. Where the roar isn’t just played over the speakers but embodied by every man, woman and child in the stands.
These are a people who look forward to their rugby league on the weekends, on the nights after school. A people whose reason to look forward to the end of their shift, to the end of the week, is to stand on that hill with a beer in their hand.
For others it’s sport, but for them, it’s a way of life. It’s walking down High Street and seeing the Panthers logo across the front of local businesses, of banners being strung up along Queen Street celebrating their achievements.
To every team that arrives at the foot of the mountains, they have to stare down falling into the black hole, enveloped by a team that never gives in and supporters that don’t back down.
These are the days to enjoy in Penrith. When the side is red hot, when the wins are coming they are not to be taken for granted. For one day, the fire will go out, the coals will turn to ash and the remnants of this side will be swept away by the winds of time.
But until then, this side is going to take some beating. They are white hot, they are scorching, they are breathing fire. Good luck to anyone who stands in their way.
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