How Penrith got their resiliency
When all is said and done of Penrith's gravity-defying rugby league feats this season, mark their non-descript loss to Cronulla in Bathurst six weeks ago as the turning point.
Critics have been too busy wiping the egg from their face to notice that point man Jamie Soward, who had already been enjoying a stellar season up to that week, returned from central-western NSW a completely different player.
Having watched skipper Peter Wallace finish the game despite playing with an ACL tear, Soward shouldered the blame for the defeat.
"I played like s*** that game, then he told me he did his knee after the game," he said at the captain's launch on Monday.
"He [Wallace] rang me with the scans and he was pretty upset. I just remember feeling like s***. I let him down. Something I pride myself on is not letting my teammates down. After that Ivan said, 'This is your team now, get it done'."
Wallace's character-building effort has defined Penrith's improbable charge to the top four.
It was a courageous act repeated by the next captain in line, Brent Kite, who finished the following week's game against the Bulldogs with a medial tear in his knee.
Kite then returned for Penrith's final regular season game against the Warriors after missing the previous five weeks with a pectoral injury.
"What Pete [Wallace] did was just phenomenal. At the end of the day, I think Wally knew what he'd done. And for him to play the rest of the game, hopefully it was a bit of a legacy," Cleary told NRL.com.
"We've had a few things since then, too. Kitey himself played with a grade three medial for the last 15 minutes of the Bulldogs game five or six weeks ago.
"We've got all these injuries, but guys are just doing their best and that inspires people. Jamie's really taken the bit between the teeth, too."
While Wallace soldiered his way into a casualty ward that now houses Tyrone Peachey, Elijah Taylor, Bryce Cartwright and Kevin Kingston, Soward starred in three straight Panthers wins before the side was taught finals lessons against Melbourne and Manly.
Hit by suspensions to key forwards Adam Docker and Jeremy Latimore, the Panthers again defied rugby league physics by easily disposing of a Warriors team playing for their lives.
It's a resiliency that Cleary admits wasn't at the club when he arrived three years ago.
"I wouldn't say surprised me, I'm really proud of it. I think it's very admirable and that's what you want in a footy team," he said.
"One of the things when I first came to Penrith, I didn't really think we had it. So over the last couple of years I've been trying to build it.
"This year, we're really making some strides. If you want to compete in the NRL with the big boys, that sort of stuff's got to be in the wood."
And now it's taking place in their new skipper too, who is an entirely different man from the one who told media where and how to stick it after his premiership win with the Dragons four years ago.
"It was cool that I told you guys that," Soward recalled.
"You get to write whatever you want. So I had the chance, wearing the ring and holding the trophy, and say what I wanted. A bit immature, but that's why most people hate me, [isn't it]?"
One year later the momentous piece of jewellery was a weight too heavy to bear.
"2011 was weird because I'd come out of Origin [and] I hit a pretty s***y patch. That finals series was hard for me mentally," he continued.
"After it ended at St George, it wasn't fun I went over to London. The coach encouraged me to play footy and have fun. It wasn't hard to see that I was out of shape, but I was over there having fun."
And now Soward, who this time last year was sitting back cruising the channels of Venice with his now wife, has become Penrith's frontman.
"When 'Wall' [Wallace] first went down, [Soward] and [Brent] Kite shared it for a couple of weeks," coach Ivan Cleary said.
"But then Wall got injured again, and Kitey had been missing for 4-5 weeks. And even when Kevvy [Kingston] came in for a week, Jamie kept the captaincy, but Kevvy had it as well. So all these leaders around him have been falling away, so I said, 'Over to you mate'.
"In a way that's probably been a blessing for him, because he's happy to do it, and I think he's done a really good job. His form's been good in that period, and that's always a good indication.
"First and foremost, if you're going to be a captain, you have to play well. And he's certainly done that."