Tom Cruise’s role in Penrith’s successful sequel

First it was climbing Everest, now the motivation for perfect Penrith’s second straight title can be revealed: the Top Gun movie.

While the theme was kept top secret within the four walls of the Panthers before their grand final demolition of the Eels, the Penrith sheds after full-time told a different tale.

A visit to the cinema proved almost season-defining for Ivan Cleary’s side, who had mocked-up movie posters scattered throughout the dressing rooms, with one in particular featuring images of Penrith players dominating rivals from grand final opponents Parramatta in tackles.

It carried slogans such as “always the hunters”, “brutally suffocating” and “fast moving”.

Players also had individual posters created with their image just months after the Top Gun: Maverick sequel was released in cinemas. Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer be damned when you can carry around cardboard cutouts of Nathan Cleary and Viliame Kikau.

Coach Ivan Cleary was still reluctant to discuss the theme in Penrith’s sheds an hour after they mounted a compelling argument to be the greatest team in the NRL era, saying “the mission was to win, that’s all”.

The Panthers used the Top Gun sequel as inspiration for their second straight title.

But his players knew exactly the theme which was driven home in the final months of the season.

“We watched Top Gun and we sort of related their mission to our mission and where we stood,” five-eighth Jarome Luai said. “We used Mount Everest as a bit of a thing last year. But this year was Top Gun which was pretty cool.”

Said back-rower Viliame Kikau: “We were driven by a dog fight. That’s been the theme. Last year was Everest, this year was about having that dog fight in us. We used the last few rounds and going into the finals. Every game was a dog fight and we had to win them.”

It’s not unusual for title-chasing clubs to develop a mantra in a bid to extract an extra few per cent in the run to the finals, and the Panthers internally spoke about conquering Mount Everest en route to last year’s premiership in Brisbane.

The Panthers also made a pact to forgo alcohol in the countdown to the finals with eventual Clive Churchill Medallist Dylan Edwards refusing to even have a sip when toasted as the club’s Merv Cartwright Medal winner at the club’s presentation night last month.

But the beers flowed freely into Monday morning after a first-half masterclass blew away western Sydney rivals Parramatta, whose title drought will extend into a 37th year.

Ivan Cleary broke down when addressing his players on grand final eve with Kikau (Bulldogs) and hooker Api Koroisau (Tigers) the latest stars to leave the Panthers with another salary cap crunch looming.

Cleary lost five of last year’s grand final 18, but still engineered one of the most dominant seasons of the NRL era which included just four losses, including a final round defeat to the Cowboys when he rested his entire starting 13.

Asked about his reaction to his coach’s words before the game, Kikau said: “Overwhelmed. I was really humbled. I’m really blessed to play under a great coach like Ivan. He’s been a great influence, not only on my playing career but away from footy as well, which has helped me a lot.”

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