Penrith stand on the brink of history before Sunday’s NRL decider against Brisbane. The chase to become the first team in 40 years to win three straight premierships is well within the grasp of a team many are labelling the best since St George that won 11 straight.
The old saying goes that defence wins premierships; it has without question been a fair guide for the better part of two decades. Since 2006, the year the Melbourne Storm changed rugby league by making winning the tackle the centrepiece of success, only four teams with a worse defensive record than their grand final opponent have won.
At its crux, when it is all on the line, defence can be relied on far more than attack. And that suits Penrith to a tee.
The Panthers enter the grand final having conceded just 13 points per game this season, contrasting with the Broncos’ 17.71. Only once since 2006 – Cronulla in 2016 – has a team conceded more than four points per game more than their opponent over the last 17 seasons and won the decider.
The Panthers’ defence has, of course, been central to the club’s rise over the last four seasons. Since 2020, just six teams have kept opponents to 14 points or fewer in a season and Penrith account for four of those. Three of those seasons have seen them keep their opposition to 13 points or fewer per match. In their nine finals appearances over the last three years, the Panthers have conceded just 12 tries.
It is a defence that delivers. It starts when Penrith have the ball in hand. No back three lay a better platform early in attacking sets than Dylan Edwards, Brian To’o and Sunia Turuva with Edwards and To’o the only two players in the NRL to average over 200 metres a game while Turuva averages 169. All three average over four tackle breaks a game.
Penrith don’t shoot themselves in the foot with the ball, ranking in the bottom four for negative plays while they lead the NRL in possession percentage and set completions. Capped by Nathan Cleary’s elite kicking game, no team starts a defensive set in better field position and it sets the Panthers defence to tee off.
The hallmark of Penrith’s defence is their aggression. No team has a better defensive line speed more consistently than them. They move fast, they move together. The result is the lowest metres per run conceded, sparked by the lowest metres per pre-contact run.
The Panthers’ defence succeeds by playing from in front. They start from the best field position and they initiate the tackle quicker than any other team.
Brisbane’s hopes rely, in a significant part, on undermining Penrith’s formula for defensive success. The key man for doing that will be Adam Reynolds.
A near-perfect kicking game is required against Penrith and that is no easy task because the Panthers have three quality kick returners who can all play an effective role of early-set carrier. Reynolds has to kick to corners and not allow Penrith to build momentum early in sets.
Reynolds will also be key in reducing both the effectiveness of Nathan Cleary’s kicking game and the Penrith defensive line speed. The Broncos need to be sending big body after big body at Cleary. It will not reap any immediate reward – Cleary is arguably the best defensive No 7 in the premiership – but they need to both fatigue and rattle him. An expansive gameplan will also need to be central for the Broncos. They need to move the ball, both horizontally and creating second-phase play through offloads.
Reducing Penrith’s defensive aggression is critical to giving Brisbane’s playmakers the time and space they need to succeed. The Broncos don’t play an attacking style that is particularly effective against Penrith – shown by the fact they have not topped 13 points in their last six against the Panthers. Brisbane rank 10th in line engagements and eighth in completion rate and while the latter is typically a stat that is more indicative of attacking conservatism than success, holding the ball – while stretching them – is critical against Penrith.
The Broncos have been praised for their attacking football this year – it has been brilliant – but it notable that Penrith finished the season scoring more points, breaking more tackles, running for more metres and having more assists than Brisbane.
Grand finals are typically low-scoring. That increases the value of not only defence but of the individually brilliant gamebreakers. For Brisbane, a lot rests on the shoulders of 21-year-old wunderkind Reece Walsh. Brisbane are unlikely to be able to run up a score as they have all season but will look to Walsh to create moments to slip through the Penrith wall. He averages 5.53 tackle breaks a game – 10th in the NRL – while his 1.11 try assists per game are fourth in the competition. His left-handed style is key to creating opportunity.
Penrith enter the decider more settled though. They can just keep on doing what they do best. It is Brisbane who have to adapt. They have the talent to do it but they must succeed where few others have.