Is Penrith's Defence The Best In NRL History?
The Penrith Panthers are in a bit of a rut. By their standards in 2021, anyway.
They snuck past the Parramatta Eels in Round 16, struggled to put away an injury-ravaged Warriors in Round 18 and were made to work hard by the Broncos for their 18-12 win in Round 19.
This isn't the team that started the season on a 12-game winning streak.
Nathan Cleary's injury has a lot to do with the recent results. So too does the turnover of players moving in and out of the side due to State of Origin. Injuries are starting to pile up and the relatively lucky run in the health department over the last 18 months is coming to an end. But while a lot of the commentary around Penrith's recent results centres around their struggles in attack, it's their NRL-best defence that has kept them at 2nd on the NRL ladder.
It's that NRL-best defence that will be the hallmark of their premiership-winning season should they lift the Provan-Summons Trophy on October 3.
Right now, Penrith's 10.3 points conceded per game is the best ever defence in the NRL through 18 games. The 2010 St. George-Illawarra Dragons aren't far behind at this point conceding 10.7 points per game while the 2011, 2007 and 2016 Melbourne Storm account for the next three best at 11.3, 11.5 and 11.6 conceded per game respectively.
Ivan Cleary's side are putting up historically good numbers in 2021.
It took 169 minutes for Penrith to concede their first try of the season - a Brandon Smith barrel over from dummy half in the 9th minute of Round 3. It was another three rounds before they leaked more than ten points in a game (12 - Broncos, Round 6).
As the Panthers piled up 32.2 points per game across the first 12 rounds of the season, they didn't waver in defence. Regardless of the lead, they kept the opposition from crossing their line and made a point in doing so. Penrith conceded just 7.3 points per game before suffering their first loss - and the only time they've given up 20 points all year - when falling to the Tigers 26-6 in Round 13.
While that number has since jumped out to 10.3 points per game, Penrith are still on track to concede the fewest points per game in the regular season in the NRL era.
They've improved on their 11.9 points per game last season and, at this stage, are ahead of the 2007 Storm for the best mark since 1998.
Penrith are strong across the park. Their 38% of tries conceded through the middle is the highest proportion of tries for that part of the field in the NRL, but that comes down to how strong they are on the edges more than anything else.
The eight tries conceded through the left and 12 through the right are both the best marks in the NRL through 18 games.
Penrith's edges benefit from the cohesion provided by playing a lot of football together. Matt Burton, while an excellent football player, wouldn't have slotted into the centres quite so seamlessly had he not spent so much time with the playing group prior to the position switch. Brian To'o, Charlie Staines, Stephen Crichton and Liam Martin have all come up through the grades, Viliame Kikau has been in Penrith for five seasons, and while Kurt Capewell is only into his second season with the Panthers, he is recognised as a defensive specialist.
In the middle, high work rate players are always applying pressure on the inside. James Fisher-Harris is recognised as one of the best props in rugby league because of what he does with the ball and his activity around it as a support player. However, his work in defence and ability to stick to a tackle typify Penrith's strengths as a defensive unit. Isaah Yeo is much the same and has built a similar reputation at the lock position.
However, a lot of what Penrith is able to do in defence is aided by what they do with the ball. Cleary, in particular, is a massive part of that. It's no coincidence that the Panthers have conceded 19.2 points per game in the five without him having leaked just 9.1 points per game in the 13 he has played.
Cleary is one of the best defensive halfbacks in the NRL. He came into first grade underdone from an attacking point of view, but had no trouble dealing with the physical and technical side of defence. But it's not Cleary's individual defence making the difference. It's his game management and the pressure he builds at the other end that translates into a strong team defence.
Cleary and Luai both have 15 forced dropouts this season - the most in the NRL alongside Shaun Johnson. By forcing repeat sets and camping at one end of the field, Penrith are second in tackles inside the opposition 20-metre line with 32.6 per game. They use their attacking weapons to throw a punch at the opposition, and if they manage to handle that one, Cleary and Luai roll one into the in-goal and buy themselves another swing. At worst, they force the opposition to work out from inside their own 10-metre line.
Per Fox Sports Lab, Penrith concedes just 1,271 running metres per game while running for 1,643 metres per game themselves. They pin the opposition in their own end and wait for a mistake.
It's certainly not the only reason for their success in 2020 and 2021, but the six again rule plays right into the hands of the Panthers. Their patient approach sees them spend the majority of their time in the opposition's end of the field and that is made easier by the fact relieving penalties are rare.
While the dominance of the Storm and their 35.1% premiership favouritism has cast a shadow over the Panthers more recently, the Stats Insider Futures Model still has Penrith at 23.7% to come out on top on Grand Final Day. Their performances at full strength - especially in defence - are historically good. Even with the injuries and disruptions, there is every chance the Panthers enter finals footy with the best defence in NRL history.
With the third-hardest draw in the competition to come over the remaining six rounds, we're certainly going to see them tested.
Still, defence wins premierships. Penrith have been developing this defensive resolve for two years and it puts them in good stead to beat what might end up as the best-defensive team in NRL history when it's all said and done.
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