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Panthers on Mt Rushmore?

Love them or hate them, the Penrith Panthers making the 2023 NRL Grand Final puts them deep into the conversation as one of the greatest teams of all time.

We’ve seen great teams dominate for long periods throughout rugby league history. It’s harder now to do so than it was in the past, but the Panthers have found a way to sit at the top of the pile for four years and counting.

So, where does this group rank all-time among the greats?

The ‘Never Before, Never Again’ Dragons

The decade of Dragons dominance between 1956 and 1966 is always the first team to come up in this discussion. It’s known as the ‘Never Before, Never Again’ era for a reason. No rugby league club will ever win 11 consecutive premierships again. While few footy fans these days saw the Dragons in action, names like Graeme Langlands, Reg Gasnier, Norm Provan and John Raper are known by those young and old.

They may not have the size and skills of the players we see today. By the numbers, though, no team will ever come close to matching the Dragons through this period. With 85 players donning the red and white, the Dragons scored 1,039 tries and kicked 996 goals for 5,109 points. They played 222 games throughout the period, winning 183 games while losing only 34.

Their 11 premierships is a recognised world record in professional sport. It is, however, worth noting this team played what was effectively a different sport. With unlimited tackles up until the end of 1966, rugby league wasn’t how we now it today.

The Green Machine

The Canberra Raiders made their first Grand Final in 1987. While the first ended in defeat, their second – only two years later – has been marked as one of the greatest wins ever.

Led by Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley, Gary Belcher and Ricky Stuart, the Green Machine made five Grand Finals in eight years – winning three of them. They backed up the 1989 win with another in 1990 and were close to making it a third on the bounce before falling at the last hurdle in 1991. Embroiled in a salary cap drama the same year, the Raiders lost a number of key players. They missed the finals for the first time since 1986 but slowly built back up to feature in the 1994 Grand Final.

Dominating the Bulldogs to win 36-12, the Raiders won a third premiership and sent Meninga into retirement a winner.

90’s Brisbane Broncos: The First NRL Juggernaut

Kevin and Kerrod Walters, Darren Lockyer, Wally Lewis, Alfie Langer, Glen Lazarus, Shane Webke and Petro Civoniceva are some of the greatest players of all time and played the sort of game for the Brisbane Broncos through the 1990s that is a lot closer to what we know now.

Premiers in 1992 – just their fifth season in the top national grade – the Broncos went back-to-back in 1993. Langer was at the peak of his powers as the ’92 Clive Churchill Medal winner and the Broncos, while not winning another premiership until doing the double again in 1997 and 1998, finished 5th, 3rd and 2nd to remain as one of the top teams in the competition.

Breaking away with the Super League and winning it in 1997, they moved into first on the ladder after Round 5 and stayed there for the remainder of the season. In that time, they won the only ever in-season World Club Challenge tournament made up of 22 teams, two groups and two continents.

The Broncos won the inaugural NRL premiership in 1998 with a resounding 38-12 win over the Bulldogs. They started the season poorly but their quality shone in the end as they rode a 12-game unbeaten streak to the Minor Premiership.

Add their 14-6 win over the Roosters in the 2000 NRL Grand Final and you’ve got a decade of dominance that has been unrivalled ever since.

A Storm Brewing

Starting with a Minor Premiership in 2006, the Melbourne Storm went on to dominate the NRL and win four premierships in five years.

On paper, they’re arguably the greatest team of all time. But as we now know, there was a reason they were able to send Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Brett Finch, Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Adam Blair, Ryan Hoffman and Dallas Johnson, Israel Folau and Jeremy Smith, among other recognisable names, out onto the field for the 2007 and 2009 NRL Grand Finals.

Their stripped 2007 and 2009 titles sandwich a not-so-successful trip to the Grand Final in 2008.

Rather fittingly, Smith was suspended for the last two games of the year which included their 40-0 hiding at the hands of the Sea Eagles – the biggest defeat in NRL Grand Final history. Still, only a year earlier, Inglis, Slater, Smith and Folau all won awards at the Dally M Awards night. Smith and Slater took enough votes off each other to finish second-equal in Dally M voting before Slater won the Golden Boot later in the year. The team was stacked regardless of how it was put together.

Melbourne won 90% of their matches throughout the period and scored 25 points per game. However, it’s in their relentless consistency in defence that they made their name. The Storm conceded only 11.54 points in 2007 – the best mark in NRL history. They followed it up a season later conceding only 11.75 points per game with their 12.83 points conceded in 2011 their third feature in the Top 10.

The history books will record their dominance in different ways but for many, no matter the circumstances, they’ll be remembered as one of the superior teams of the NRL era.

Panthers Presenting Their Case

While the four teams above occupy the current rugby league Mt Rushmore, they need to start making way for another.

With the 2023 NRL Grand Final their fourth on the trot, there is little doubt that this Penrith Panthers outfit is one of the best in the history of the game. Whether they win or lose this one, they have a strong case.

They’ve been successful through a turbulent period in rugby league. Every team had to deal with the Covid seasons but the Panthers did it well enough to make a Grand Final and win one. Rather impressively as junior footy and reserve grade stalled, the Panthers developed their talent well enough to replace the top-quality players who are forced out of successful teams by the salary cap. Just last year they lost Matt Burton, Api Koroisau and Viliame Kikau only to replace them and remain at the top of the pile.

Penrith’s approach to development and retention has forced an NRL-wide rethink as clubs look to promote from within rather than hoard salary cap space and hope to hit on a high-value winner.

Like the Storm of the mid-to-late 2000s, the Panthers have done it with their defence. They’ve been the best defensive team across the last four years, peaking in Round 18 in 2021 when they’d conceded only 10.8 points per game in the season up to that point. Their 11.9 points conceded per game is third on the all-time list with the 12.4 in 2023 claiming another spot inside the Top 10.

It’s quite likely that the Panthers navigate this dynasty without ever producing one of the great, great individual teams. The 2000 Brisbane Broncos, 2010 St George-Illawarra Dragons, 2013 Sydney Roosters and 2017 Melbourne Storm have arguments for better seasons than this version of the Panthers, but as far as dominant periods or dynasties go, Ivan Cleary’s side have the NRL-era sewn-up at the very least.

With the quality of players in the sport today, the pressures that come with extra exposure and the constant need to keep ahead of the opposition in an evolving game and competition, the Panthers will go down as the best team to ever do it if they make it three in a row.

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