It’s probably a safe bet that Penrith coach Ivan Cleary doesn’t make a regular stop at the local newsagency part of his routine on the way into Panthers HQ each day.
The coach has always given you the impression that he’s fairly comfortable in his own skin, and isn’t sweating it out waiting to see what the papers are saying about him or his team.
But if curiosity did get the better of him there’s no doubt he’d be sporting just a little smile as he thumbed his way through the sports pages, which are full of the Broncos’ woes, the Roosters’ march towards a three-peat and how the Panthers’ nearest neighbours, the Eels, are reminding everybody of a time when the Blue and Gold Army really was an army.
The world of NRL analysis and punditry is full of stories about coaches under pressure at any number of clubs, player agents holding clubs to ransom, and even the prospect of a hybrid game between the All Blacks and the Kangaroos.
You can read about everything except the team coming second – the Panthers.
Which is just the way the coach would like it.
They’ve lost only one game from their first seven, they’ve already beaten the defending premiers and they were too good for perennial contenders Melbourne and they can’t crack it for a story anywhere.
That master of having his teams’ ‘flying under the radar’, the one-time Panther himself, Des Hasler, couldn’t have pulled this off any better than Ivan Cleary has managed to this point.
And in a shortened season, 11 premiership points out of a possible 14 is a tremendous platform to launch Penrith’s best chance at contending for a title since the drought-breaking season of 2003.
But you know what? The news gets even better when you look at what’s in front of the Panthers between here and the Finals, and especially so when you consider the form they’ve shown so far in 2020.
In their final 13 games of the minor premiership, they have only one game against any of the other four teams that currently sit in the top five with them.
No Roosters, no Storm, no Knights.
They get the chance for revenge against the Eels in Round 18, having tossed away the lead and the chance to remain undefeated in the second half against Parramatta in Round 5.
The draw has worked out beautifully for the Panthers, but only because they’ve been able to show that they are more than capable of handling the teams who’ve established themselves as the benchmarks.
They’ve elevated themselves from a team with potential to now being a team that has legitimate premiership contender stamped across their name in bold red letters.
The coach would say one game at a time and we’re not getting ahead of ourselves and rightly so – it’s that sort of competition.
The reality, though, is that the Panthers have given themselves the opportunity to finish in the top four, if not the top two, with what they’ve done to this point, and by the time the Finals roll around, the days of flying under the radar will be long gone.
Warren Smith is one of the country’s leading sports broadcasters. He currently calls the NRL for Fox League.