They’ve been the NRL’s most dominant team for almost two years, but without a premiership ring to show for it … yet. Now Ivan Cleary will have a chance to settle the score against Wayne Bennett, and rob him of a fairytale finish at Redfern.
But what has been behind the secret behind Penrith’s relentless winning march?
They have perhaps developed a reputation as boasting the best trick shots in the business, particularly when it comes to scrums. How crucial is Isaah Yeo to the Panthers’ premiership hopes? Then there’s the league’s best defence; how do you possibly break it down?
This is what the Rabbitohs will have to overcome if Bennett, Adam Reynolds and possibly Benji Marshall are to farewell South Sydney with a title.
Set plays and scrum moves
For more than five months, Ivan Cleary sat on a trick shot few would have still had their television on to see.
In an early-season match where the result was long decided, Roosters fullback James Tedesco jumped into dummy-half and outrageously kicked for his winger, Matt Ikuvalu, with his Storm opposite Josh Addo-Carr way infield.
The Panthers have been lethal from scrum plays this year.Credit:Getty
It was nothing more than a cheap consolation try in the last minute. But Cleary stored it away.
Then with the stakes at a premium, Nathan Cleary did the same in the opening three minutes of a preliminary final when he exposed Addo-Carr again, kicking for Stephen Crichton as he hugged the touchline in acres of space. The Panthers eventually won by just four points.
“We’d been practising that play for some time at training and to see it come off to perfection in such a big game is crazy,” Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai says. “It was such a cool moment to be a part of, and it started off our day well.”
But what if that wasn’t even the Panthers’ best trick shot this year?
In an era when the NRL has reduced the number of scrums, the Panthers have wound back the clock. They’ve run several variations from scrums for a swag of tries this year. Maybe it’s a sign of Cleary’s evolution as a coach, maybe it will be the difference on Sunday as in previous deciders.
Surprisingly, grand final tries from scrum plays have been relatively common: centre Justin O’Neill bagged one for the Cowboys’ first four-pointer in the 2015 decider while Ben Barba also got the Sharks on the board in 2016. Both tries were crucial in tight results.
“It’s very hard to defend,” Johnathan Thurston says of the Panthers’ set pieces. “Cleary and Luai have the speed to get across the field and the defensive line can’t leave until the ball is out. The scrum can’t break either, otherwise there’s a chance if they keep doing it they’ll be in the sin bin.”
‘You watch each team very closely and when you’re playing in the finals you can’t be going over the same plays all the time.’
Earlier this year, the Panthers scored directly from a scrum against the Sea Eagles. It involved Cleary standing at first receiver, Luai sweeping around the back to create the extra man on the left and Brian To’o wrestling his way over the line.
A couple of weeks later against the Knights, there was a different move. Cleary fed the scrum before peeling away to the short side. Yeo, at lock, picked up the ball at the base of the scrum and skipped to the right where Cleary was, before fullback Dylan Edwards, packing into the second row, broke quickly and received a ball on the inside to score as Knights defenders were left scattered and confused.
But Penrith’s pet play has evolved as the year has gone on, now involving Luai standing directly behind the line of the scrum, feigning to go right before breaking left.
Cleary will feed the scrum, but quickly race to the left, allowing Api Koroisau to pick up the ball at the base and fire left to Cleary and Luai, who use Matt Burton as a decoy to create space for To’o. Twice it shredded an under-strength Parramatta in round 25, and they also attempted it against the Rabbitohs in Dubbo before South Sydney were penalised for breaking too early from the scrum.
The Panthers celebrate Brian To’o’s try from a scrum play against the Eels in round 25.Credit:Getty
“They always go the side away from where they’re feeding the halfback,” Thurston says. “You watch each team very closely and when you’re playing in the finals you can’t be going over the same plays all the time.”
So how do you defend it? Deliberately stand offside to cut down their time?
“It’s dangerous,” former Dragons playmaker Jamie Soward says. “The thing with South Sydney, I don’t think they will give up that try. They would rather concede six-again. It’s a legal way of being illegal.”
Wayne Bennett is not immune to his own trick shots in big finals matches. Soward kicked early in the tackle count for Mark Gasnier to score the Dragons’ first try of the 2010 grand final, and Bennett has his halfback from that game, the shrewd Ben Hornby, as one of his assistants running South Sydney’s attack this year.
“Wayne had come up with it and we felt like we could expose Joseph Leilua on that edge,” Soward says of the 2010 ploy.
“If I’m Souths, I wouldn’t mind an early kick in behind because they’re trying to rush up and try to get up nice and early on [Blake] Taaffe to force him into an error. Souths have got this beautiful knack where both halves [Reynolds and Cody Walker] hold the ball out the front like they’re going to kick, then they pass out the back.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they look out the back early then put a short kick in behind Crichton for [Alex] Johnston to rattle the nerves early.”
How do Penrith attack?
At the start of the year, Matt Burton had barely played in the centres. Now he’s a central figure in how the Panthers run their preferred attacking plays, with several variations.
Matt Burton has been crucial to Penrith’s attack this year.Credit:NRL Photos
Much like South Sydney, the Panthers prefer to go down their lethal left edge. But it’s the subtlety in their different shapes which could cause the Rabbitohs all sorts of problems.
Premiership-winning coach Shane Flanagan breaks the Panthers attack down into three phases. The first involves Yeo getting them into a position, the second Nathan Cleary turning one of his forwards underneath and the third involves their shift to the left.
“They set up a 6-4 field position,” Flanagan says. “They’ll have Isaah Yeo being a ball-player and Cleary and Luai to the left. Not often does Edwards ball play if he’s on that side, and if he’s there they’ll often go across the face of him and set up as a decoy. He’s more often on the right.
“The third phase is what happens with Kikau and Burton and the shape they run. Does Burton get the ball early? Does Kikau turn under? Or does Burton lead for Kikau? There’s lots of scenarios.”
The latter has proved effective in recent months, setting up To’o for a second-half try against the Storm as Burton ran an outside-in line and Kikau’s soft hands out the back set up his winger.
As one NRL coach said: “They have so many players like Cleary and Luai who hold the ball in a way which you think is telling you one story, but it’s really a mask for another.”
On the same night Penrith pounded the Sea Eagles on the Easter weekend and Des Hasler’s future was cast into doubt, Yeo set up a try which showed how crucial he has become to Cleary’s side.
Isaah Yeo has increased his involvement in Penrith’s attack as the season has gone on.Credit:Getty
Receiving the ball one off the ruck, Yeo quick-stepped his way towards the defensive line with Moses Leota to his right and the other prop, James Fisher-Harris, to the left. Yeo turned his shoulder like he was going to pass to Leota on the inside, but at the last minute swivelled his hips and shovelled the ball outside to Fisher-Harris, who poked his nose through the line and offloaded to Leota to score.
It was a try entirely down to Penrith’s three middle forwards, and proved just how crucial Yeo is to their style of play.
“You just can’t let Isaah Yeo dictate by skipping to the B or C defender because he’ll play out the back and then they’re stripped for numbers,” Flanagan says.
The deeper the season has gone, the more time Yeo is spending on the ball and less he’s running. He’s had 31 and 32 possessions in the Panthers’ gripping wins over the Eels (Luai only had 39) and Storm in the finals respectively, a fulcrum for an attack which takes the pressure off Cleary.
But, crucially, his ratio of runs to possessions has dropped in the finals (13 runs each in the last two games), suggesting he has evolved as the season went on to help massage his side’s attack.
In one attacking set alone last week against the Storm, Yeo handled the ball on four consecutive plays as he directed his team into position.
We underestimate how important [Yeo] is picking when they shift
“We underestimate how important [Yeo] is picking when they shift,” Soward says, a point he referenced on his Sweet And Soward podcast. “When they get a look they like, you can see Cleary push up harder with Yeo as opposed to when they get something they don’t like.
“I’ve always looked at a principle of short to long [pass], long to short. Short passing right now is the key in the NRL. They run this play on the right, which I think they’ll try this weekend, where Cleary gets on the outside of Yeo and they might go straight over the top to [Stephen] Crichton.”
Yeo will come face to face with South Sydney No.13 and NSW teammate Cameron Murray, who plays a similar role for the Rabbitohs, albeit with a greater focus on carries rather than ball-playing.
“He’s obviously a crucial part of their side,” Yeo says. “He’s in a position where you’re going to get the ball a lot as it is, and I can’t rap him enough as a person and a player.”
Andrew Johns reckons watching the Panthers-Storm preliminary final last week was like seeing two teams take baseball bats to each other. It was ferocious. But haven’t all of Penrith’s finals games been like that this year?
The NRL’s best defensive team for the last two years have conceded just 28 points in their three finals so far, and the Eels and Storm could only bag one try each – off kicks.
What makes Cleary and assistant Cameron Ciraldo’s defensive unit so good?
Flanagan argues a lot of it has to do with the fact most of the squad have been defending together since junior representative days, but also their individual athleticism.
Dane Gagai takes some punishment against the Panthers, who have had the best defence in the NRL for two years.Credit:NRL Photos
“They’re very similar to Melbourne, their first contact is good and then they’ve got good athletes who can get in and get out of the tackle quickly,” he says. “They don’t take two or three strides and then become isolated where [Damien] Cook is out of dummy-half pushing up their backside. They’re into the tackle quick, and out of it quick.”
But there are also tactics involved.
No team gives away a greater percentage of set restarts in the opposition half than the Panthers, estimated at 65 per cent compared to the NRL average of 50, according to Rugby League Eye Test. It allows them to bide time early in tackle counts, and then hem an opposition down their end with a fast-moving defensive line.
Soward also argues the Panthers, moreso than almost any team in the NRL, subdue attacking teams collectively with a patient defence which is constantly working from the inside.
“They don’t have anyone that rushes up to make the play,” he says. “Where are they vulnerable? Through the middle early they’ve been exposed a few times.”
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