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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.

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.


What happened

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:

  1. A lack of experience led to the team being overawed by the occasion
  2. A lack of coaching motivation and some odd and late selection choices undermined the team’s cohesion and mental state
  3. 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”)
  4. Melbourne are pretty fucking good and where they don’t dominate, they contain

What’s next

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.

Club Report – Penrith Panthers


Penrith first joined the NSWRL in 1967, the same year that Cronulla was admitted to the competition. Success came much sooner for the Panthers, reaching their first grand final in 1990 and taking out the big prize in 1991.

The Panthers had some leaner years, including a very mediocre 2002 season, before a surge at the start of the 2000s saw a side featuring Rhys Wesser, Preston Campbell, Ryan Girdler, Luke Priddis and captained by Craig Gower taking a second premiership in 2003 and making it deep into the finals the following year.

Since then, the club seems to have a spurt of quality for a season or two before fading into the background again. The Panthers look to be going through a similar spurt at the moment with finals football the cards for two years in a row, which would be only their seventh NRL finals appearance.

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Analysis – Another bloody mid-season review (Part II)

With the conclusion of round 14, it’s just over half time in the 2017 NRL season. It’s the ideal time to do what everyone else is doing and look back at the season so far. This week we’re looking at the back half of the NRL.

Part I, from Brisbane to Newcastle, was last week.


A reminder of the benchmarks that define each place on the ladder –

wins positions

And where grand finalists and premiers come from on the ladder –

gf positions

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