In the new Apple TV series ‘Ted Lasso’, the title character encourages his dejected team to ‘be a goldfish’ – in other words, have a short memory and move on quick from the disappointment.
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary could probably implement a similar line of thinking heading into the 2021 NRL season as his team tries to erase the pain of the 2020 Grand Final.
There’s a lot of benefits to being a goldfish here – after winning so many games in a row and falling at the final hurdle, there is no question that Cleary’s biggest task is getting his side to move on and focus on a new campaign.
But Cleary knows there’s also some benefits to hanging on to some of the pain of that loss to Melbourne. After all, the achievements recorded in 2020 – 17 straight wins and a Minor Premiership – deserve to be honoured. There is also something to be said for using the pain of the Grand Final loss to inspire his team to go one better this season.
In the end, he must find a balance – build on the good of 2020, and forget the bad.
One of the biggest aspects of that challenge will be getting the side back into the usual roller coaster of a rugby league season. The side remained injury-free for most of 2020 and lost just one regular season game, all while being in a ‘bubble’ shielded from the outside world. This year will be different.
But 2021 is a year Penrith fans deserve to be excited about. They now have a winning football team with a strong culture, and hope has been replaced by expectation.
There is some significant player movement this season and after very little recruitment from 2019-20, outside of buy of the year Api Koroisau, some cycling of the player roster was inevitable.
The biggest losses come in the forwards. With James Tamou and Zane Tetevano gone, Penrith’s forward stocks look a little thin on the ground. The signings of Scott Sorensen and Matthew Eisenhuth will help, but it’s hard not to feel a little worried about the side’s depth should injuries strike in the forwards this season.
The departure of Josh Mansour hit fans particularly hard and while his experience will be missed, youth rules the side these days and there is every likelihood that Charlie Staines will announce himself as one of the game’s great finishers this season.
With Dean Whare heading to France, Penrith’s backline is starting to become a little clearer – though not completely. While you would expect Cleary to run with Stephen Crichton and Brent Naden in the centres, question marks still linger around where Naden sits in the team. He was benched for both the Preliminary Final and Grand Final last year, then had an off-season to forget after a positive test to cocaine was revealed. Whether he walks into the starting side this year is up in the air.
Dean Whare, once one of the game’s best defensive centres, has left for France – so that leaves Tyrone May, a favourite of Cleary’s, or new recruit Paul Momirovski as contenders for Naden’s position.
One thing we have learned over the off-season is that Cleary plans to move Brian To’o to the left side of the field. With halfback Nathan Cleary naturally preferring to play to the left, it would create a lethal edge starring Viliame Kikau, Stephen Crichton and To’o – sure to be feared by opposition coaches all season.
And what of that man, Nathan Cleary?
The sight of his hands on his head in despair after throwing a crucial intercept pass in last year’s Grand Final is still fresh in any Penrith fan’s memory. It is that moment that could help define his 2021 season – giving him the fight to go one better.
Cleary is just 23. As halfbacks go, he’s only just coming into his best football now – and he has the best halves partner possible in Jarome Luai, the flashier of the pair. I have little doubt the duo are on the verge of their best season together.
One thing to remember about this Penrith side is that it’s full of players who are still getting better. The likes of Liam Martin, James Fisher-Harris and Stephen Crichton all became household names in 2020, but they’ve still got significant improvement in them – and they could all explode into superstar status in 2021.
After making the Grand Final last year and opening the Premiership window, it’s fair to expect Penrith to go one better this year. It’s always a worry to carry the favourites tag into a season, but this Penrith side deserves it – now they just have to match the expectation.
It would be fitting for the Panthers to lift the trophy on Grand Final day on the 30th anniversary of the club’s first Premiership triumph against Canberra.
Let the ride begin.
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.