How do you topple a team on the verge of the NRL’s first three-peat in 40 years, playing in their fourth straight grand final against Brisbane on Sunday at Accor Stadium?
It’s a question 16 teams have asked themselves time and time again since 2020, and have found no clear answer.
“They’ve just been a good side for a long time,” Brisbane coach Kevin Walters puts it simply.
“They play the long game. They are a ruthless side, they don’t give you a whole lot.”
On Sunday, Walters’ Broncos are next to try and crack the code against a Penrith side that averages just 8.25 points against them in their last eight finals.
There are theories.
Most revolve around unsettling Penrith, rather than attempting to beat them at their own grinding game.
Anthony Seibold went most extreme this year, as Manly threw the ball around and challenged Penrith before a first-tackle kick ultimately cruelled the Sea Eagles.
For others, offloads appear the most likely solution.
Parramatta’s fast and mobile pack have troubled the Panthers more than most, while Eels halfback Mitch Moses believes kicking deep and to corners is key to nullify kick returns – something Broncos half Adam Reynolds excels at.
But even with the best laid plans, Parramatta’s returns are a grand-final defeat and a semi-final loss to their arch-rivals.
Phil Gould, who helped lay the foundations for the Penrith dynasty, insists going set-for-set and trying to make the Panthers break first is the trick.
But it’s easier said than done, given Penrith make the fewest errors in the NRL.
Come Sunday, Brisbane will hope the answer is a firing Reece Walsh, with Penrith yet to contend with him in his current form.
The most electrifying player in the competition, the Broncos’ fullback has set up 29 tries in 2023 and broken the line 20 times.
His attacking brilliance was at its best last week against the Warriors, playing off the back of forwards who regularly poked their nose through and offloaded at will.
“We’re going to have to get it on and hopefully we can do our thing and give Reece a little bit of space and then he can take care of the rest,” Broncos lock Pat Carrigan said.
“Points will be hard to come by. But we’re going to go out there and play our brand of footy.”
Brisbane’s middle is the competition’s best on paper, and they need it to unleash Walsh on retreating defenders.
Tom Flegler and Carrigan both won State of Origin this year, while Payne Haas is a block of granite personified as he averages the most post-contact metres in the NRL this year.
“That’s certainly something last week they did really well, they were on the front foot a lot of the time,” Penrith co-captain Isaah Yeo noted.
“That’s what allows Reece to be out the back and hitting it at 100 miles an hour.”
Doing it against Penrith, however, is a different beast.
The Panthers make more metres than any other team, and concede the fewest.
“That’s probably one of the bigger battles of the game,” Yeo continued.
“That forward battle and trying not to let them earn too much momentum there.”
Penrith’s back five are also crucial in that, regularly slingshotting their way towards halfway on the back of the early-set power of Brian To’o and Sunia Turuva.
Inevitably, it puts Nathan Cleary in the position for attacking kicks, limiting the damage opposition backs can do on kick returns in broken play.
Opposition backs, like Walsh.
“He’s a great player, very exciting to watch. Got a lot of flair and a lot of speed,” Cleary conceded.
“We’ll be working on that this week and trying to nullify his game.”
Brisbane have the potentially perfect blend of middle grunt, offloading ability, attacking fireworks and kicking control to beat Penrith and claim the club’s first title in 17 years.
But actually doing so, and denying Penrith the first three-peat since Parramatta in the 1980s, is a whole other challenge.
https://www.odt.co.nz/sport/league/brisbane-search-answers-deny-penrith-three-peat Brisbane search for answers to deny Penrith three-peat