Written by John Davidson
James Maloney has admitted he has been surprised by the consistency and the complete dominance of the Penrith Panthers this year.
Maloney left the Panthers, who finished 10th in the NRL last year, at the end of 2019 to join Catalans Dragons. This season Penrith won the minor premiership and will play in the NRL grand final on Sunday.
The Panthers have had just one defeat and one draw from 20 matches, and possess the second-best attack and the best defence in the competition.
“I knew there was plenty of potential there,” Maloney told Everything Rugby League.
“I probably didn’t expect it to be as well as they have gone, they’ve only been beaten once all season – that’s impressive at any stage. I knew there was plenty of ability there and talent, I knew they’d be a competitive side but I didn’t expect them to be this dominant and have a season where you can go through and only lose a whole match.”
Penrith’s dominance has been built on a core of local juniors and products who have come through the club’s pathway systems into first-grade.
“They’ve always had good juniors and good talented kids coming through the area,” Maloney said.
“It’s a stronghold for rugby league. They’ve developed these kids, they’ve come through a good pathway and they’ve all had good opportunities at different stages in the last couple of years.
“They’ve now just really clicked. It probably helps they are a really young side and a lot of them have played footy together coming up through the grades, so they all get on and know each other’s games really well.
“It just seems that they’re all playing well – there’s no one not performing, and consistently, which is the really impressive thing because when people talk about young, inexperienced sides that consistency can be one thing that’s hard thing to get. They’ve done it week-in-week-out.”
Halfback Nathan Cleary has been a standout for Penrith and narrowly missed out on winning the Dally M medal.
“He’s obviously enjoying the leadership role there,” Maloney said of his former Panthers and NSW Origin halves partner.
“He was always going to be a leader and develop into that. With such a young side, and even though he’s young himself, he’s one of the senior guys having played at representative level.”
“By the looks of it he’s enjoying steering the side around and taking control of that, and Jarome who’s just been sitting there, ready-made to go, has come in and announced himself as the talented player that the club knew they had sitting there waiting.”
Jarome Luai was handed the number 6 jersey at the foot of the mountains when Maloney left. The 23-year-old has been outstanding for the Chocolate Soldiers, and the 34-year-old knew the Samoan international was primed to take his chance.
“He was pretty much just ready and waiting there,” the Catalans playmaker said.
“There was never a question there once I left who would be there, or whether they have someone ready to go. He was just hanging there, he got a few opportunities in different positions, but he was always a talented player waiting for an opportunity.
“He got that opportunity this year and he’s been outstanding. It’s been really good to see. They’ve all been really impressive.”
Maloney spent two years at Penrith, the 2018 and 2019 seasons, but started his NRL career with Melbourne Storm back in 2009.
The ex-Kangaroo and Blues five-eighth believes the Panthers will win their first title in 17 years on Sunday, and beat the Storm, if they play to their potential.
“I find it hard to see Penrith getting beat if they play their best,” he admitted.
“Obviously Melbourne will turn up and play well – there’s no chance they’ll put in a bad performance on a big stage. But I think the fact Penrith has been the best side all year, they’ve done it week after week, they’ve only lost one game and they’ve won in all different formats.
“They’ve won in low-scoring matches, they’ve won in high-scoring matches, I think they’ve got everything – provided they turn up and play the best they can play, they win. Hopefully they do that.”