A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Penrith Panthers
The line between hard nose, scientific anlytics and gut-based mysticism is a fine one indeed. From the season preview:
The numbers suggest a tough year ahead for the Panthers, with not much to look forward to. The projected team is only two Taylors per game better than the Bulldogs. TPR lists only four guys worth a damn, roughly the same as the Titans. The sims have ten wins and eleventh place on the ladder picked out for Penrith, a re-run of 2019.
My gut says Penrith could do a lot this year. The grand final might be a step too far but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them scrapping for a second week final nor would it surprise me if we wrote them off as finals contenders shortly after Origin. The risk is there is plenty of potential but not a lot of proven execution, as last year’s rookies become this year’s sophomores and the pack that was bulldozing the league a few years ago slowly being whittled away.
I can’t in good conscience claim to have had any particular insight here because the above is so vague that any outcome would fit it. In hindsight, I was trying to highlight the potential variance in the Panthers’ future that was not reflected in their numbers and that, at least, proved correct.
The Penrith Panthers are 2020 NRL premiers.
The Panthers won a lot of games. I mean, a lot. An 18-1-1 is the best regular season win percentage (.925) of any team in the NRL era. The next closest is the 2007 Storm, who went 21-3 (.875) and cheated the salary cap.
We could spend a lot of time rattling off how good the Panthers were but briefly:
- Penrith finished the season as minor premiers, 2.5 wins clear of Melbourne
- Penrith finished the season with the highest form Elo rating (2nd highest average over the season)
- The Panthers were the most productive team by Taylors
- They had the third best offence and fourth best defence by Poseidon
- Nathan Cleary was second of all halves, James Tamou third of all middles, Api Korosiau third of all hookers, Josh Mansour second of all wingers and Stephen Crichton best of all centres by WARG
- The Panthers were by far the most out-performing of their player projections
- They were the biggest beats of their Disappointment Line
Penrith were also the second biggest outperformers of their Pythagorean expectation. Normally, that would mean wins without fundamentals but the above list completely contradicts that idea.
My own gut feel was that, while they had won a lot of games, they had typically won by smaller margins and failed to blow any teams off the park and in that, they might come unstuck later on. Even that wasn’t true upon review: 26-0 over the Warriors, 56-24 over the Sharks, 42-12 over Manly and 42-0 over the Bulldogs.
There’s no secret to it. The Panthers played a lot of football and they played it very well.
The Panthers dominated possession, leading the league with an average of 54%. This was supported by the competition’s best completion rate (82%) and sixth best for handling errors (which, considering the amount of possession and therefore opportunity to make handling errors, is a truly remarkable feat). Combining their line speed with a pathological desire for metres (they were first by kick, kick return and running metres), Penrith were able to dominate the field, which handed them more possession.
The camaraderie was their for all to see. Even as someone with no particular sympathy for Penrith and downright antipathy for any Sydney club, it warmed my heart to see the Boys get fired up before, during and after games as win followed win. Despite their failure to win the grand final, there’s a huge lesson in team building to be learned by the rest of league. Cleary and his staff have taken a squad no one gave much mind to and got them all operating at peak performance for almost 22 weeks. It’s just so rare.
They were fortunate not to be struck down with injuries like many of their rivals but they were competent enough to take advantage of the opportunity. It’s also likely that the excess of possession covered for a relatively inefficient offence (the Panthers scored fewer points than the Roosters, despite the Roosters aveaging only 49% possession). When the platform laid by the forwards is the league’s best, then the playmaking behind does not need to be maximally efficient to rack up points because the opportunities to score are so frequent.
What caused Penrith to fail so miserably in the first half of the grand final will be speculated upon by rugby league scholars for the foreseeable future. I expect people will attempt to ascribe a single cause to it but failures almost always have several causes. Here’s my guesses in no particular order:
- A lack of experience led to the team being overawed by the occasion
- A lack of coaching motivation and some odd and late selection choices undermined the team’s cohesion and mental state
- Bad luck, as ordinary mistakes were met with disproportionally large punishments, frequently in the form of runaway tries the other way (I think this is what Gus Gould means by “the scoreboard is unfair”)
- Melbourne are pretty fucking good and where they don’t dominate, they contain
A lot of pundits are expecting that the Panthers will be a Good Team for the foreseeable future. I’m, naturally, more circumspect than that.
Exceptional years are just that, exceptional. They are by definition not repeatable. So while Penrith will likely feature in the top six for the next two or three years, until the current squad is turned over so much that they’re no longer recognisable, I don’t know if they have the credentials to challenge for the premiership every year.
In other words, I’m yet to be convinced that their process is on the same level as Sydney, Melbourne and maybe Canberra. Processes are repeatable. 54% possession is the kind of strategy that other teams cotton on to and nullify. Camaraderie like that shown in 2020 is practically the stuff of lightning in a bottle and potentially completely destroyed by the events of last Sunday.
The alternative is that the grand final loss becomes a rallying point for the 2021 campaign. Ivan Cleary is famously the least successful long term coach in the NRL, with no premierships from two grand final appearances after 342 games as head coach. He has a winning record of 49.6% acording to Rugby League Project. Next year he gets to prove to the leauge that his process is legit and give his lengthy but so far silverware-free career a sense of legacy.