Defending National Rugby League (NRL) premiers the Penrith Panthers have come out of the starting blocks firing on all cylinders in their bid to make it back to back Telstra Premiership crowns.
After three rounds of a competition already featuring a host of close finishes and just as many upsets, the Panthers remain the only undefeated team – with a maximum six points from three decisive victories.
After thumping Manly in the opening round, the Panthers hung on grimly to defeat the very gallant St George Illawarra Dragons 20-16 in round two.
But it was their 38-20 thrashing of the previously undefeated Newcastle Knights on March 26 which clearly emphasised that the ‘mountain men’ are the team to beat in the race for Premiership glory in 2022.
To add further merit to Penrith’s undefeated run thus far, the premiers have been without the game’s best player, NSW State of Origin halfback Nathan Cleary, who has missed the opening three rounds whilst recuperating from off season shoulder surgery.
Cleary, who won the Clive Churchill Medal for being the best player on the field in the 2021 Grand Final, is likely to return to the field in this week’s Grand Final rematch against the South Sydney Rabbitohs (Friday night, April 1).
South Sydney have shown that despite a slow start to the season, they will again be a force to be reckoned with this year after trouncing fellow glamour club the Sydney Roosters 28-16 last weekend – with gun fullback Latrell Mitchell starring for the Redfern-based club.
It is generally conceded that a team must finish in the top four to have a realistic chance of winning the competition and along with the Panthers, Rabbitohs and Roosters, others with strong claims of featuring near the top of the table include the Melbourne Storm, Parramatta Eels and Cronulla Sharks.
The Storm and the Eels had an epic battle last Saturday night, with Parramatta prevailing 28-24 courtesy of under-rated lock forward Ray Stone, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in scoring the match-winning ‘golden point’ try.
The Eels haven’t won a premiership since the Peter Sterling/Brett Kenny/Ray Price era of the 1980’s but have been regular semi-finalists over recent seasons and many keen judges thought them a tad unlucky when toppled by eventual premiers the Panthers in last year’s Preliminary Final.
With the game’s best coach Craig Bellamy calling the shots, The Storm are rarely out of the top four. To win the Premiership, you need a top quality ‘spine’ (fullback/five eighth/half back and hooker) and Melbourne have all of these positions covered and then some.
Cronulla have bought exceptionally well in the off season with their major signings including former Melbourne stars Nicho Hines and Dale Finucane and first grade debutant coach Craig Fitzgibbon has the Sharks playing very impressive football.
With two wins apiece, the Newcastle Knights and the Canberra Raiders are both currently inside the top eight after three rounds, but only time will tell if they have the depth to stay there.
The past few seasons have proven to be a nightmare for the three Queensland clubs but both the North Queensland Cowboys and the Brisbane Broncos have won two of their first three games which is a good sign of things to come.
The Gold Coast Titans made the Semifinals last year for the first time since 2016 but will need gun forward David Fifita to remain injury free throughout 2022 to have any chance of finishing in the top eight this time around.
Manly Warringah and Canterbury-Bankstown have both only won a game apiece to date but you can expect the Sea Eagles to be charging their way up the ladder as the season progresses, with exceptional fullback Tom Trbojevic leading the way.
The Bulldogs have looked unlucky in both of their narrow losses and as their new-look team gradually gels in the coming months, they are capable of giving the higher rated teams some headaches. Five eighth and star signing Matt Burton is one of the best players in the NRL.
Likewise, St George Illawarra and the New Zealand Warriors have also only won one from three and while both teams are capable of playing bright attacking football, they make too many errors to trouble the top sides.
This leaves us with ‘wooden spoon’ favourites, the Wests Tigers, who are yet to win a game this season and with a very tough run ahead of them over the next month, it is quite conceivable that the ‘Madge’ Maguire-coached gold and blacks could be 0-7 this time next month.
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CAPTION: Winners are grinners. Reigning NRL Premiers the Penrith Panthers on the victory dais. Photo courtesy rte.ie