The Penrith Panthers incredible defence has taken the club to incredible heights. Back-to-back Premierships, more wins over a three year period than any other team in history, we all watched as the record kept tumbling.
Throughout this run however the Panthers attack has at times looked very clunky. Points have come from defensive sides that have been worn out by running into the Panthers brick wall of forward for 60 minutes. To the Panthers credit it has worked, but it is time for them to evolve.
Round one of the new season showed that everyone has lifted their game. Teams look fitter, more mobile, everyone looks like they have been taking lessons from what the Panthers have been doing in recent years, and the gap is closing.
The loss of Api Koroisau and Viliame Kikau took a couple of wrinkles away from their attack. Two individuals who could make something out of nothing. The Panthers are still left with plenty of high quality attacking players in their side, so adapting should not be a problem.
So why didn’t we see it in round one?
The 2022 Rugby League World Cup showed what Jarome Luai is capable of when given the role as a chief playmaker. He was unstoppable, and powered Samoa to the World Cup final despite playing alongside Anthony Milford who was diabolical to the teams performance,
Luai was playing a lone hand and showed the ability to break down an opposition attack, mostly in the middle of the field.
For the Panthers Luai is mostly parked out on the left hand edge, and when the ball gets out there the attack stutters. Luai’s first instinct is to stop, at times freezing the defence, but also freezing the attacking players around him as well. With less room to work with, and while trying to involve his team mates, the attacking plays out wide look see some of the games best attacking players bunched, with little variety in their running lines, and playing off the cuff. It’s just not the best use of so many talented players.
It worked with Kikau there to use, he would break down defensive sides just with the threat of him getting the ball. Without him, a set defensive line is just shutting down the off the cuff, simplistic attacking structure.
It is not Luai’s fault. I don’t blame any of the Panthers players. I think this is a coaching issue.
Now I know what you’re thinking. It takes a decent set of stones to be critical of a coaching staff that has powered a club to so much success, but as always in the NRL, you either evolve or you get overtaken by your opposition.
The Panthers attack in the middle of the field is fantastic. Between the roll the forward start to get on, Cleary working over the defensive line and Isaah Yeo acting as basically a second playmaker with good footwork, the Panthers can break down anyone up the middle. They need far more variety on the edges and out wide however, better line running, decoy runners and offloads.
When you look back at round one and what other NRL clubs are doing with their attacking structure, some clubs look like they are playing a different game to the Panthers. Sure it can lead to lower completion rates due to the plays being more risky, but when you have one of the best defensive sides of all time, isn’t that a luxury that you should fall back on to open up your attack from time to time?
The problem is not a lack of talent. It should be easy for the club to make changes and make their attack less predictable, but playing it safe and playing the numbers game will only work for so long because other teams are always studying what the Panthers do and they are spending every single moment trying to catch up.
Not one single Premiership winner has ever wanted their run of success to be over. They all felt they were on the right path to beat everyone once again…..and then, it was all over.
This Panthers side is still young. They are still hungry. They still have the talent and it’s clear they understand they are doing something special right now. I just hope they don’t settle with what they are doing and they keep looking to improve. They have it in them, will we see them unleash more variety by the time the finals roll around?