Jarome Luai and Brian To’o were bouncing around Penrith’s Sunshine Coast hotel with their boom box as usual on Monday and Kurt Capewell insisted that little had changed for the Panthers after the weekend’s loss to South Sydney.
“We had to win three games to win the comp as of last week and we are just lucky enough to have earned a second bite, so we have still got to win three games,” the Penrith second-rower said.
Yet the Panthers effectively now need to win three grand finals to achieve their premiership dream – firstly against arch-rivals Parramatta, then against minor premiers Melbourne and finally the grand final itself.
Significantly, Penrith won’t get a week’s break ahead of the preliminary final after coach Ivan Cleary chose to play his top side in the last-round clash with Parramatta in the hope of finishing the regular season in first place and securing next weekend off by winning their qualifying final.
To bounce back from the 16-10 loss to Souths in Townsville last Saturday night and win the grand final, the Panthers will need to become just the fifth premiership-winning team under the NRL era's top eight system to have lost their opening finals match.
It’s a feat only previously achieved by the 1999 Storm, the 2004 Bulldogs, the 2006 Broncos and the 2015 Cowboys but few now give Cleary's men much hope of finishing one win better than last season’s grand final defeat by Melbourne.
The Penrith players, who came together for the first time since the match against the Rabbitohs to review their performance on Monday afternoon, disagree.
“We weren’t at our best on the weekend and Souths were probably at their best,” Capewell said.
“If we can find our best footy, I don’t think anyone can stop us. We work every week just to get to our best and if we can do that no-one will beat us.”
Former Kangaroos halfback Brett Kimmorley agrees that Penrith can recover from last weekend’s defeat like his 1999 Storm side did after losing 34-10 to St George Illawarra and then edging out the Bulldogs and Eels before triumphing 20-18 over the Dragons in the decider.
“They have made it quite hard for themselves but there is no reason Penrith can’t bounce back and win three amazing games,” Kimmorley said.
“The Panthers haven’t lost too many games over the last two years, they are a great side and a quality team so it is a matter now of being able to handle that big game pressure.”
Brent Tate, who played in the Broncos team that triumphed 15-8 over the Storm in the 2006 grand final, said much would depend on whether Cleary can convince his players they can still win their premiership as Wayne Bennett did after Brisbane’s 20-4 loss to the Dragons.
Episode 29 - Bennett v Cleary, Jai Arrow, week 1 washup
The Broncos thrashed Newcastle 50-6 the following week before beating Canterbury 37-20 in the preliminary final.
“I think you always have doubts after losing a finals match but Wayne was very much of the opinion that we just needed to learn our lesson from that game and get on with it,” Tate said.
“I definitely think it has become a much harder task for the Panthers now, but it’s not impossible.”
Former Cowboys playmaker Michael Morgan, who laid on the 80th-minute try that sent the 2015 grand final against Brisbane to golden point, agreed that the Panthers faced a tough task to do what his team did and win three consecutive finals matches.
"If I was ever to do it again I'd prefer the week off just to refresh just because they're such big, emotional games," Morgan said.
All is not lost
The Panthers missed fullback Dylan Edwards (foot) and prop Moses Leota (calf) in the match against Souths and while both are expected to play against the Eels, Cleary had hoped to give them a two-week break to fully recover for the preliminary final.
After returning to their team hotel from Townsville at 2.30am Sunday, the Penrith players were given two days off training and began preparing for the Parramatta clash with a video review session.
“The hardest thing is to learn lessons while you are winning so to have a loss sometimes gives you the kick up the backside you need,” Capewell said.
“You work very hard during the year so that you get two chances at the end of the season and we are grateful to have the chance to go again.
“I have never been in a team as good as this Panthers team so I hope that this week we get back to our best or we definitely improve towards our best.
“We have got to go back during the week to work on our combinations and fix what we have done wrong, but not much is going to change for us.”
Yet while the 1999 Storm, 2004 Bulldogs and 2006 Broncos managed to bounce back from their finals defeats, the 2015 Cowboys have been the only team to do so in the 15 years since.
Every try from finals week one
The 1998 Broncos also won the premiership after losing in week two of the play-offs under a 10-team finals format in which the top two sides had week one off and the opportunity for another break in week three.
“There used to be a theory that you could lose momentum by having a week off and if you play every week you’d go into the grand final battle hardened," Tate said.
"But I just think the game is so hard and demanding now that the week off is invaluable."
Kimmorley said the Panthers would have been keen for a week off but now have to regroup.
“They are essentially playing three grand finals in a row because obviously the battle of the west is a massive game for them with the rivalry with Parramatta, then the Melbourne Storm, which a lot of people thought was going to be the grand final, and then they play the grand final,” he said.
Morgan said: “It’s hard. In 2016 we lost to the Broncos and the games are more physical so it takes that bit longer to get over and you're not going in as fresh as a team with a week off.”
The key to recovering from a finals loss to win the premiership, according those who have done it, is to maintain a positive approach and Capewell said the mood in the Penrith camp remained upbeat, despite their setback.
“Obviously there was a bit of disappointment in the group but everyone was pretty quick to change their mindset,” Capewell said. “There wasn’t too much we could do about the game we had just lost, but nothing changes for us. We had to win three games and we still do.
“Jarome and Brian are bouncing around here with their boom box and their energy is at an all-time high so it is amazing to have players like that in your team who can keep the vibe positive.
“I think as a team we have just got to ice our opportunities when we get them. We are creating plenty of opportunities so it is only a small number of things that we need to fix and all of a sudden we will be unstoppable.”
Tate said that when the Broncos lost to the Dragons in 2006, Bennett convinced his players that they had an easier run to the grand final than if they had won.
“It flipped us onto the other side of the draw and I just remember Wayne looking at the positives of that and what we had to do,” Tate said.
“We had lost the game, but the focus was on what the positives were and then straight onto next week. It certainly didn’t dent our confidence.”
Looking back at the 2006 grand final
Kimmorley said Chris Anderon had a similar impact on the Storm after their loss to the Dragons in 1999 and it would be up to Cleary to ensure the belief of the Penrith players did not waiver after losing just three regular season matches.
“A lot of it goes back to your coach,” Kimmorley said. “I just remember how Chris Anderson instilled the confidence in us to keep going and I’m pretty sure that Wayne Bennett would be able to convince his team how they are going to win and why they are going to win.
“Throughout that whole finals series I just remember how calm Chris was, and especially on grand final day when the game was pretty much done and over at half-time. He instilled that confidence in us to go out and start playing football and by playing football it got us back in the game.
“The experienced coaches know how to handle it so it’s up to Ivan now.”
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The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.