Rugby league is rarely ‘normal’ but after one of the strangest seasons on record in 2020, this season offers consistency and routine as we return to a 25 round competition and an endurance race to October rather than a sprint.
For Penrith and the Cowboys their respective campaigns begin this Saturday night at Panthers Stadium and both sides have very different motivations ahead of the new season.
The Panthers have now established themselves as the hunted after a record-breaking season that saw them fall just short of the ultimate prize, and the heartbreak of the Grand Final defeat to Melbourne would surely be enough to motivate them for the long road again.
As for the Cowboys, a return to the Finals would be front of mind but with a new coach in Todd Payten and only moderate involvement in the player market, this is shaping up as something of a rebuilding year in Townsville. Still, Payten will be keen to make his mark and getting a good start would be his key focus for this first part of the season.
The Cowboys had a solid pre-season hitout against Brisbane a fortnight ago, producing a 34-18 win in Redcliffe, coming from 18-6 down at half-time. Payten would surely have been impressed with the way his side roared home, proving that the side’s attitude appears to be in the right place.
Penrith meantime downed Parramatta 16-6 in what was a tough, in the trenches type of game – a challenge I’m sure coach Ivan Cleary welcomed as he tries to toughen his side up a little in the wake of what happened against Melbourne in last year’s decider.
I’m expecting something of a high scoring encounter on Saturday night, with the exciting backs across both teams to put on a show. You don’t put on a game with the likes of Brian To’o, Stephen Crichton, Kyle Feldt and Valentine Holmes as the star attractions without some points being scored.
But to determine a winner you only have to look at the halves. While Michael Morgan and Jake Clifford will likely lead the Cowboys around admirably this season, Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary offer a halves pairing that is the envy of pretty much every team in the competition.
Luai and Cleary will surely create more opportunities this weekend, and that should help Penrith kickstart this season in fine style. After a full NRL season together, there is no doubt the pair will be even better this year – and hungrier.
Perhaps the best thing about the side Ivan Cleary has in his hands this year is that a winning culture is already ingrained. It is a culture developed through the junior system, where Penrith teams have dominated for the past decade. When Cleary approached Stephen Crichton for a ‘grounding’ chat after 10 straight wins last year, he replied: “What are you talking about coach, I win 10 games in a row all the time”.
It wasn’t said in arrogance, but it was a reminder that these players just know how to win, and we started to see that transition to the NRL last year when the side kept collecting wins without fear.
This promises to be an exciting season opener – but Penrith look stronger on paper, and the side’s incredible record at Panthers Stadium over the past 18 months will also be a factor.
Tip: Panthers by 12.
The Panthers and Cowboys play at Panthers Stadium on Saturday, March 13 at 7.35pm.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Senior Writer. He has more than 15 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.