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Three decades on from Penrith's first premiership win, the stars were aligning for Ivan Cleary's side to emulate the heroes of 1991 by bouncing back to win a grand final after losing one the previous year.

They say you need luck on your way to a premiership, particularly with injuries, and despite the Panthers using just 29 players (equal second lowest in the competition), their journey to a third title was anything but easy.

While they had no season-ending injuries, the setbacks to Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai and Dylan Edwards throughout the year threatened to derail their title dreams before a defensive grind for the ages in the finals led them to victory.

And to cap off an emotional night at Suncorp Stadium, Ivan Cleary had the honour of presenting son Nathan with the Clive Churchill Medal as the player of the grand final.

Regular-season record

Many predicted the Panthers to slide down the ladder in 2021 given the departures of experienced men James Tamou, Zane Tetevano and Josh Mansour in the off-season.

However, a 12-game winning streak to start the year quickly evaporated that talk and the Panthers were back into premiership contention.

The implications of State of Origin were in the club's planning for the second half of the year but not even they could've been prepared for the prospect of losing chief playmaker Nathan Cleary to a shoulder injury.

Plenty began to question their credentials again when they dropped two games during the Origin period and while their attack never really hit full gear for the remainder of the year their defence remained resolute.

While they were flattened when heavily depleted against the Storm in round 20, Cleary's men never conceded more than 16 points again. 

Run metres differential

The Panthers led the competition for yardage gained and rarely had an off performance when it came to containing the opposition.

Their biggest strength was coming out of their own end with Brian To'o and Stephen Crichton consistent alongside Dylan Edwards as a back three trio.

They were rarely ever pinned down their end throughout a game, and if they were at times, the boot of Cleary tended to get them out of trouble.

To'o finished with a competition-high 4,510 metres during the regular season with Edwards (3,398m) the side's next best. 

In the middle, co-captain Isaah Yeo and James Fisher-Harris tormented opposing forward packs while Viliame Kikau ran riot on the left edge.

Fisher-Harris finished best of the forwards for yardage with an average of 164.8 metres per game.

Try scoring - game time

The Panthers were fairly consistent across the 80 minutes but were stronger as the game went on with 63 tries scored in the second halves of games.

Matt Burton finished as the club's leading try-scorer after 24 regular-season games with 16 before grabbing one more in the Telstra Premiership grand final.

Brian To'o (15) and Charlie Staines (14) were next best while Stephen Crichton (11) and Nathan Cleary (10) also finished on double figures.

Tries conceded - game time

Quite simply, Penrith's defensive display was the best in the league and across the past two years is up there with the best in rugby league history.

They backed up their strong attack in the final 40 minutes of games with watertight defence, particularly just after half-time with only the five tries conceded.

They came up with 83 "desperation" tackles throughout the season with Dylan Edwards leading the way at fullback on 14.

They also conceded just nine break causes, indicating their effort in the regular season served them well for the finals.

Tries scored from six-again

Similiar to their tries scored pattern, the Panthers scored 17 from ruck infringements conceded by the opposition while in return they conceded just four tries when the tackle count was reset. 

Their 17 scored placed them alongside the Rabbitohs in attack while defensively they were ahead of their grand final opponents by five compared to the rest of the competition.

Metres gained from offloads

The Panthers ranked seventh for offloads but many proved effective with an average of 75.4 metres produced on average per game.

Viliame Kikau (34) and James Fisher-Harris (28) led the way in this department while five-eighth Jarome Luai was also prolific with 27.

Kikau's second-phase ability generated an additional 305.2 metres for his side throughout the year while Luai came in at 157m.

Defensively the Panthers were solid in defending offloads with 224 conceded (51.2m on average per game) but that figure jumped significantly in the finals when teams tried to attack their line.

Goal-kicking accuracy 

It won't be a surprise to see that the Panthers ranked highly in the goal-kicking department again in 2021 with Nathan Cleary predominantly in charge with the boot.

Cleary himself slotted at 85.4%, an improvement on his 2020 season, before Stephen Crichton and Matt Burton kicked 20 goals between them in his absence.

Players used 

Penrith fielded the youngest squad on paper in 2021. Yes, you read that right.

Their average games of experience sat just above the Bulldogs for an average of 62.7 games per player.

The Panthers had over 22 players take part in 11 games or more throughout the season for a competition high 75.9%.

They used four NRL debutants - J'maine Hopgood, Taylan May, Izack Tago and Lindsay Smith - throughout the course of the season.

Applying pressure

Penrith's opening 40 minutes against the Rabbitohs in the grand final was relentless and perhaps an indication of their cornerstone for the season.

The side ranked in several key areas for applying pressure throughout a contest with the territory aspect a real slow killer for opposition teams.

The Panthers never seemed too flustered if they were turned away with the ball and for the most part of the season were always putting in effort in unnoticed areas to swing momentum back their way.

Their repeat sets were often from the boot of Nathan Cleary while they had plenty of 'good ball sets', deemed as try-scoring opportunity sets, compared to every other team in the competition.

While it's hard to measure line speed, it was a constant throughout the season.

Panthers forward Liam Martin (50) finished best for the side with kick pressures on the opposition with Mitch Kenny (41), James Fisher-Harris (40) and Isaah Yeo (35) the next best.

Why were they able to build so much pressure? See below.

Yardage makers

The Panthers did the basics right in attack that left them with plenty of juice to defend.

In attack, they got themselves over the advantage line and on the front foot more often than not.

They finished 1st for run metres and post-contact through tackle breaks and their ability to use techniques like elbows and knees (not put on their back in a tackle) and their ability to stay on their feet in a tackle was also top-notch.

This all leads to a quicker play-the-ball and forward momentum.

Brian To'o (116) and Dylan Edwards (84) were best for tackle-breaks while To'o was also best for remaining on his elbows and knees for a fast play-the-ball.

Viliame Kikau proved hard to bring down with 77 stay on feet efforts.

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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