A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Penrith Panthers

The 2021 Penrith Panthers became the first non-Melbourne team to win 21 games of NRL in the one regular season. They were unable to match the win percentage and finishing position of last season’s efforts, in fact only coming a lowly second to the Storm. Penrith’s +390 points difference, third best of the NRL era on a per game basis, was good for 20.1 Pythagorean wins, a small out-performance but more or less earned.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

There are many questions, mostly revolving around the safety of western Sydney’s drinking water, but I think that the Panthers will regress hard. There are three reasons for this:

1. Ivan Cleary can’t maintain the same standard

2. The Panthers lost players

3. Penrith got lucky

It’s a little baffling to watch Ivan Cleary, a man with a club coaching record of 170-168-4, suddenly turn into a superstar. A little too baffling for my taste. The 2020 Panthers outperformed their projections so thoroughly that it is literally unprecedented. Craig Bellamy was rated +7 in 2019, the previous best coach factor. Cleary was rated +12 in 2020. He was as good as Seibold was bad. That simply makes no sense.

It is incredibly rare to see everything go so right for a team and it is similarly impossible to imagine it happening again. While the Panthers might be one of the top rated teams by projected Taylors, if we wipe 10% off that to account for the rigors of reality hitting home, they come right back into the pack. Their Pythagorean expectation was outperformed by more than two wins in the regular season and Pythagoras will demand his tribute this year, perhaps with an equal overreaction in the other direction.

I have again spared you the insufferable history wank but worse, in a stunningly predictable year, I don’t think I was more wrong on any team this year than the Panthers.

Let’s rewind. Shout-out to the dude on Reddit who couldn’t square why I was so down on the Panthers’ prospects in the season preview, despite the numbers saying they would be good. One part of it is that the numbers obviously don’t tell the whole story and require a human to provide some context and nuance and sometimes these diverge in conclusions.

The other part is fuck the Panthers. The Panthers are the embodiment of Vlandoball and for a while at least, their entire fanbase refused to acknowledge that, actually, their club might have accidentally benefitted from some of the rule changes.

I think we’re past that kind of discourse and if I may indulge, the lesson here is more about me than the Panthers. In the time I’ve been doing this, this is the first time a team other than the Storm and Roosters has won the title. I’ve basically taken the route that I’ll believe it when I see it and it takes a lot of it for me to believe. This has served me pretty well until now.

I’m only just now going to admit in writing that the Panthers are legit, after they’ve won the title and after two regular seasons with a combined record of 39-4-1, including the 2020 edition setting a new record winning percentage for a NRL season and both 2020 and 2021 sitting in the top five of all NRL teams for points conceded per game and Pythagorean expectation. Let’s just say the clues were there and I did not give it due weight. It was bad analysis.

The good news is I’m ready to learn from my mistakes and annoit the Parramatta Eels as my 2022 NRL premiership favourites.

What happened

The Penrith Panthers are your 2021 NRL premiers.

Everything else is irrelevant. If you’ve read the other 15 season reviews, you’ll know that the Panthers’ form Elo rating was up there most of the season. You’ll also know that Cleary had one of the most productive seasons ever. You’ll know that Souths out-produced Penrith in both finals games.

There’s always next year

They’re finally starting to lose good players. Capewell and Burton are out. On the other hand, if they can offload Tyrone May, the team may well get better. It’s worth remembering that the Panthers NSW Cup side was leading that competition when it was cancelled, with a 12-5-1 record and six points clear of Western Suburbs. If you can be bothered looking down these lists, you’ll see some names worth keeping an eye on: Sunia Turuva, Izack Tago, Taylan May, Bill Tsikrikas and Alec Susino.

As someone who values his time, I don’t watch NSW Cup so I can’t say I’ve vetted any of these names with an eye test. Even if they are all legitimate top prospects, it seems unlikely that all five would pan out at NRL level. The Storm take this many shots each year only to unearth one or two functional first graders.

You’d have to say the future looks pretty bright. Roster – tick. Pathways – tick. Finances – tick. Coach – fine… tick. Maybe a new stadium as well? They’re another deep finals run away from establishing a genuine dynasty. It would be the Panthers’ first and the NRL’s first interruption to the Sydney/Melbourne dynastic dominance since the Broncos’ ended in 2000.

There’s still a lot of football to be played before we get too far ahead of ourselves. The Vlandoball era is slowly being wound down but the Panthers showed that, hobbled and exhausted, they could match it with the best in the pre-Vlandoball form of the game. While those some of those finals wins were close – and the grand final hinged on a couple of very fortunate moments – you don’t need to be the best to win the premiership. You just need to find a way to win.