Struggling for rhythm and consistency, a young halves pairing and a 2-5 record with a tough uphill climb for redemption underlines what has been nothing short of a weird season for the team with the newest seat at the NRL pressure table.
First things first; uncertainty around the timeline for Billy Slater and Tohu Harris’ returns, a quiet doubt on how seamless the Munster-to-six transition would be and a little opinion fatigue sprinkled in (Melbourne have been the consensus “best” team for just about forever now) is to blame for how a surprisingly large amount of rugby league intelligentsia concluded that Penrith were most likely to lift the trophy at seasons end.
Last year’s surprise packet, Penrith finally begin to form into the advertised product of Gus’ dynasty plan. That success immediately raised the stakes for this season. There was some decent logic behind all the fuss;
– A breakout season for essentially their entire team and surprise finals-run experience to boot
– Youth and depth at every position (seriously, this team runs a comfortable two deep at every spot)
– (What was perceived as) a perfect fit with the addition of rep veteran James Tamou
– The jump into the top 8 is quite different in difficulty compared to the leap from top 8 to top 4
– Youth = inexperience. Because of the finals run, this was completely dismissed in a strange oversight by most.
– Teams adjust. Des Hasler’s effective short-ball, forward-oriented offence mutated into stagnant lateral play within 3 seasons. Innovation is required to keep things fresh, teams are rarely fooled by the same trick twice.
The equation at play here is straightforward – potential and performances such as last year’s bring expectations, expectation brings pressure, losses mount pressure. All the noise will dissipate once they start chalking up wins. Similar talk started to surface in response to the Raiders early season form, once they broke even and begun mounting their campaign they were in the clear. The only way up is up, in more ways then one.
This team has been relatively healthy and the abundance of quality players outside the main 17 should afford them a luxury to not stress about injuries. There draw hasn’t been too gruelling with a solid mix of lowly teams (Knights, Rabbitohs, Tigers) and contenders (Sharks, Storm, Dragons) So, what’s the root of their problems? As expected from a team with only two wins, they’ve struggled mightily on both sides of the ball in areas that are fairly important.
Griffin was lauded for his ability to guide the team to a breakout season whilst allowing them to play the unstructured style that brought their many weapons to life. Another oversight by those expecting an unchecked leap into contention – the linchpin to consistently great offences is structure – especially evident in this year’s struggles.
Sufficient offensive teams have an ability to open up gaps on the defence’s fringes. Great attacks have plays and structures they rely on to create these holes and players regularly combining to take advantage. Take any of the leading attacks – The Storm, Roosters and Shark all attack consistency and efficiently through these zones. It’s what has separated the Dragons below average 2016 attack from their outstanding improve this season. Canberra tend to aim a tad wider and achieve the same results through their centres – demonstrating there is some variability with how that takes place depending on what the personal dictates.
With Penrith relying excessively on broken field play and momentum to present scoring chances, teams that can restrict second phase play and line-breaks have a good chance of flustering them into unproductive sets without any structure to rely on. Not known for their defence – any team that is able to shut down their attack is in a good position to get the best of them. Games against high level opposition this season have highlighted this issue. In those three games against good opposition, Penrith have been outscored by a collective 98-18. Troublesome. This suggests that they aren’t ready for that level competition and teams have come hard at them after hearing the talk. Wins against the Knights and Tigers are nothing to write home about.
They rely on their offence to dictate the games pace, and they’ve been unable to match last season fluidity with the ball. Team game, but the blame lies with their stars.
Moylan’s poor form is masked by a rise in his own running meters (up to 141mpg, a career high) which helps connects the dots to some overlapping issues – Moylan, an elite ball-playing fullback, is being forced to run the ball more without the regular options presenting themselves as frequent as they have in the past. Penrith looked at their best when Moylan was running the show, popping up wherever opportunity presented and connecting the dangerous ball-runners to open space. Teams have clamped down hard, moving their outside defenders up early and forcing Penrith to open up the game from somewhere else. So far, it’s worked, and this young squad hasn’t faced the adversity to know how to adapt.
It might appear as if Tamou has been miscast as the leader of the forward pack. Due to his rep and premiership history, it’s been forgotten this is a very new role for him. His minutes are up, yet he’s running less (13.8 down to 11.7) for less meters (116.1) than he has in three years. Theres no Matt Scott or Jason Taumalolo to create inroads or draw defensive attention away. Getting used to this takes time. Merrin has been closer to early 2016 form rather than his effective late season play.
There are signs that all this turn around. Merrin started his Panthers career in a similar struggle to Tamou before putting in some good showings towards the end of the season. The Panthers, many have seemed to forget, started 2-6 last season before turning into anything resembling a competent NRL side. However that was without Moylan and it took a purple patch to even qualify for the finals, picking up seven wins from their last eight games.
That was only good enough for 7th and its basically accepted that for a legitimate shot at the title a top four finish should be the aim, or at least in the realm of possibility. It that vein, yeah, it’s time to worry. If Penrith was your pre-season pick for the premiership it’s not looking good.
Big picture, there is no cause for concern. Not yet. This is year 2 of a team that has turned a corner and become victim to the hype train leaving the station before the driver has learnt the controls. Cleary is a future star. But potential is potential until there are results. Consistency is what brings that ability full-circle and Cleary is yet to demonstrate any prowess in orchestrating the attack. Too often he’s found searching for predetermined options that haven’t materialised and without the developed instinct to create something, gets caught with the ball. Frequent happening in the opposition 20 which is an undisputed momentum killer – a factor Penrith rely on to generate chances.
Both Te Maire Martin and Cleary have struggled when the chips have been down, commonplace for any rookies, doubled-down when they play in the halves. Added bonus that they are experiencing the growing pains together on a team expected to be towards the opposite end of the table. Whether management possess the patience to sit tight and allow them time to develop through the turbulence and endure the outcome remains to be seen.
The Moylan to five-eighth move is always in the back-pocket. Heavily advocated due to its seemingly inevitability, it presents a reasonable solution to their halves conundrum. That might be jumping the gun in hopes to clear a boundary the team isn’t ready to jump and squash whatever belief the current pairing have of working it out long term. Not to mention it would force them to learn and execute a new structure on the fly. For now, the team’s construction is best with Moylan at the back.
Righting the ship for this season is going to be a tough ask. Considering the anticipation, it will be considered a severe underperformance. Long-term, this team is still as poised as any to develop into the leagues next dynastic force. Sit tight and allow the young guys to reach their potential and they have something on their hands, just don’t be expecting too much too soon.