How do you improve on perfection? The Panthers have dismantled the rest of the competition with a blend of skill, power and a youthful arrogance that has divided people within NRL circles into one of two camps; you either love them or loathe them.
Some of their antics have been questionable in the past, but there is simply no denying this side is one of the greatest to have graced the NRL. When a club enjoys this much success, it’s perhaps inevitable they will attract more than their fair share of detractors.
But is the dynasty about to come to an end as their rivals pick at their bones in the hopes of bringing them crashing back to the pack, or will the empire that Ivan Cleary and co have built at the foot of the mountains endure?
The Sporting News previews Penrith’s season below – including their best 17, the key to their success and predicted finish for 2023.
MORE: PENRITH’S TOP 30 SQUAD | PENRITH’S ROUND ONE PREDICTED TEAM LIST
Luke Garner (Wests Tigers), Tyrone Peachey (Wests Tigers), Zac Hosking (Broncos), Jack Cogger (Huddersfield)
Apisai Koroisau (Wests Tigers), Viliame Kikau (Bulldogs), Isaiya Katoa (Dolphins), Robert Jennings (Dolphins), J’maine Hopgood (Eels), Sean O’Sullivan (Dolphins), Charlie Staines (Wests Tigers), Christian Crichton (unsigned)
There is a reason why the Panthers have made three-straight grand finals and are the favourites to claim the premiership once again in 2023 – they have star quality all over the park.
Dylan Edwards has established himself as an integral part of the puzzle at fullback, making kick return metres one of his main priorities as he always gets his side’s sets off to a strong start.
Their backline is filled with strike, while the duo of Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai dictate everything behind a fearsome pack which is the envy of the comp.
The Panthers have had to cope with the loss of key players in their premiership-winning side’s before after Matt Burton and Kurt Capewell departed in 2022.
This didn’t bother them on their way to winning 20 of their 24 regular season games last season before wrapping up yet another title against Parramatta.
This season, they have lost Api Koroisau and Viliame Kikau which will present them with their toughest challenge yet in remaining the strongest force in the NRL.
To replace the crafty No.9, Penrith will promote from within as it’s anticipated that Mitch Kenny and Soni Luke will work in tandem to pick up the slack.
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Meanwhile, they’ve recruited externally to fill the rather large shoes of the Fijian backrower with Luke Garner, Zac Hosking and the retuning Tyrone Peachey brought in.
However, the most significant test may not come out on the field but behind the scenes at Penrith.
The coach has lost two of his most trusted advisors in Cameron Ciraldo and Andrew Webster, who both took up opportunities as head coaches at other clubs. The impact of their exits remains to be seen.
Strengths: Spine / Forwards
Nathan Cleary made 17 appearances for the Panthers in 2022 as representative duties, injury and suspension restricted his time in the NRL. It was the first time since 2018 that he hasn’t featured in 20 or more matches in a season.
His three tries were the least he’s been able to manage since his debut season in 2016, while his running and kicking metres were also down on what’s come to be expected from him.
Yet beyond the glance at statistics, Cleary remained the game’s best halfback, keeping the ball on a string with his towering bombs and precise short kicking game as he was the orchestrator for the league’s best attack.
The 25-year-old has the innate ability to slow the pace of the match down while all around him there is chaos. It’s proved vital time and time again during Penrith’s golden run and looks set to continue.
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A little bit older and a little bit more experienced than many players on this list, Preston Riki has an NRL debut within his grasp heading into 2023.
With 45 appearances in reserve grade to his name with the Warriors, Redcliffe and Panthers, the 24-year-old edge-forward is pushing for an opportunity and has an impressive resume behind him.
Riki was a prominent fixture in Penrith’s NSW Cup premiership-winning side last year, scoring seven tries and averaging 74 run metres per game.
With the likes of Kikau and J’maine Hopgood moving on at the end of 2022, Penrith have some vacancies in their back-row rotation and Riki will be hoping he can help fill the void.
While he is only on a train-and-trial deal as it stands, Riki understands the Penrith culture and the club know exactly what to expect from him after starring in their reserve grade outfit.
Rounds 1-5: Broncos[H], Rabbitohs[H], Bye, Eels[A], Raiders[A]
It’s a tough opening start for the premiers with Parramatta and South Sydney within the first month.
The Broncos should also pose a threat in the opening fixture as the Panthers adjust to their new normal, while Canberra’s big pack should ensure a physical contest in round five.
They have a bye three weeks into the season which may offer a welcome early breather or serve to disrupt any momentum they have managed to create.
PREDICTED FINISH: 1st
While Penrith may be reeled back in by the rest of the pack after losing two key members of their back-to-back premiership-winning team and having undergone major staff turnover, they will still be the league’s team to beat as they go for the three-peat.