Dark horse? Penrith might just be the only certainty of 2020

Cronulla were cooked long before Charlie Staines found his range at Kogarah, but with the sticks split after the Forbes tearaway’s third, Nathan Cleary had effectively put the statistical dagger through the Sharks’ season.

Twitter exploded. Couch-bound statisticians served fact in what is mostly a buffet of distortion.

It’s a dish well known and the proof’s in the eating, no side in history has leaked a half ton then recovered to lift the trophy.

But this is 2020, where the only certainty is the unexpected.

Droughts, fires, floods, COVID-19 and Cronulla pantsed 56-24. Throw in the prime minister flouting the 1.5-metre rule and Paul Gallen trying to clutch the Sharks’ second trophy and an engraver could be excused for jumping the gun.

But as much as Shire folk would pay to see it, there’s more chance of coach Johnny Morris hosting Family Feud covered in neck tats.

Penrith, though, are a dark horse charging into full view.

Nathan Cleary of the Panthers runs the ball

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Last week Ivan Cleary held the Tigers’ fans in the palm of his hand, this week in one-way traffic he lamented the Sharks’ four soft tries.

With pink and black jumpers Penrith are every bit the chameleon, their style too mimics the shades of their match-day opponent.

Already they’ve morphed with competition favourites Melbourne and the Roosters to grind out impressive wins. If not for a late Eels blitz, the Panthers would be on top of the table.

James Tamou leads the way, nearing the form that once made him a Kangaroos regular. And with the likes of James Fisher-Harris and Viliame Kikau, it’s a pack of skilled intimidators now laced with NRL nous.

So deep is the pool, Jack Hetherington was gifted to the Warriors. But with Isaah Yeo and Liam Martin keeping Roosters premiership winner Zane Tetevano on the bench, Cleary knows the stocks are ripe for Penrith’s third title.

The icing is out wide, and it’s almost as thick as the cake itself.

On Saturday, without veteran Dean Whare and powerhouse winger Brian To’o, Cleary unleashed the man they call Ferrari.

Cronulla weren’t the only ones caught off guard. Seemingly on tap in opposite corners of Kogarah Oval, Staines’ seat-hopping mates showcased their own frightening pace to make the backdrop in all four tries.

But somewhere among the fanfare the gold was lost. At one stage, the 19-year-old debutant found open space then top gear, looked inside, steadied and put Dylan Edwards away for a try of his own with a pin-point bullet pass.

It was a reminder of the class at the coach’s fingertips. Good judges say the super smooth Stephen Crichton will go all the way and in Brent Naden there’s a dash of James Roberts and the rangy Xavier Coates.

And even above the steady Nathan Cleary sits the cherry on top, Api Koroisau.

The glue, the glove, whatever he is, the clunky Sea Eagles are showing just how vital the crafty dummy-half was to their premiership aspirations.

And with the modified rules playing into Penrith’s hands, there’s a touch of the 2005 Tigers in the Panthers’ title quest.

That year, in terms of points scored, was one of the most free-flowing of the NRL era. And like the Panthers, the Tim Sheens-coached side started with a rawness. In the Tigers’ case it saw them concede 30 points or more in eight separate games.

But by finals time they’d nailed the formula, one that didn’t stifle the gifted Scott Prince and Benji Marshall.

Importantly for Ivan Cleary, in terms of premiership quality, his squad is far more advanced than the Sheens outfit was at the season midpoint.

But this is 2020 remember, so buoyant Penrith fans should hang on tight, there’s sure to be a twist.

So look out, it might just be improved title credentials thanks to a horror 50-point hiding.

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