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Dominant Panthers within pouncing distance of all-time premiership record

Penrith are within striking distance of creating premiership history if they can extend their runaway lead by four more points over the final seven rounds.

They have an eight-point lead heading into Saturday night’s Round 18 showdown with the Sharks at BlueBet Stadium, one of the two closest teams to their tally of 34.

Penrith also take on the other team currently on 26, Cowboys, in the final round of the regular season so if they can account for those two opponents, they could very well become the first team since the premiership kicked off in 1908 to finish the season with a 12-point lead over their nearest rivals.

South Sydney’s 1951 side holds the all-time record after finishing the season with an 11-point gap on the Sea Eagles. The Rabbitohs, with Immortal fullback Clive Churchill in his prime, went on to thrash Manly 42-14 to win the premiership,

The only other teams that finished better than the current Panthers side were the legendary Eastern Suburbs outfit of 1975, led by Immortal prop Arthur Beetson, and the Rabbitohs of 1925, who each secured the minor premiership with a 10-point buffer.

Clive Churchill

Clive Churchill (left) is one of Australian rugby league’s most revered figures. (Photo by Charles Hewitt/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Such was the unbeaten South Sydney side’s dominance in 1925 that the NSW Rugby Football League, as it was known, ended the first-past-the post competition a few weeks early to kick off the City Cup knockout tournament, which the Bunnies not surprisingly also won.

The following season a four-team finals series was introduced.

There has been no indication from NRL HQ about whether they’re considering ending the 2022 season early because Penrith are too good but you can’t definitively dismiss the potential for any unforeseen rule change these days. 

As it stands, Penrith’s eight-point cushion puts them equal fifth all time alongside the Balmain premiers of 1917, Easts in 1935 and ‘74, the mighty Saints of 1958 and ‘59, Parramatta in 1982 and Manly the following year.

The ‘83 Sea Eagles are the only team from that illustrious list who did not win the premiership with the Eels completing their hat-trick of titles under coach Jack Gibson with an 18-6 triumph at the SCG. 

Many expected Penrith’s six-point lead heading into last week to be reduced to four but the Cowboys were upset in Townsville by the Sharks and the Panthers, despite resting their seven NSW representatives, were still able to edge out the last-placed Wests Tigers 18-16.

Their 16-1 record at this stage of the season is slightly better than 2020 when they won the minor premiership but lost the Grand Final – they had 15 wins, a draw and a loss.

Last year they were 15-2 in the corresponding round but so did Melbourne, who edged them out for the minor premiership on for-and-against record by a relatively measly 30 points.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 17: Viliame Kikau of the Panthers is tackled during the round 18 NRL match between the Wests Tigers and the Penrith Panthers at CommBank Stadium, on July 17, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

This Saturday’s clash with Cronulla has the potential to be a Grand Final preview with the visitors surging up the standings this season under new coach Craig Fitzgibbon. 

The Panthers’ seven-strong Origin contingent returned to training on Thursday. Will that mean they are refreshed or underdone for an important fixture? For the Sharks, it could be the best of times or the blurst of times to make the trek to Penrith.

“Time will tell,” coach Ivan Cleary said. “History has shown and a lot of people talk about it that it’s a mental drain, that Origin period. For our guys, most of them it’s only the second time they’ve done it.

“That third game was full on. I’ve been to a lot of Origin games and that was as intense as I’ve seen it. They were all pretty happy to have a break.”

At $2.10 with the bookmakers, the premiers are near-unbackable favourites despite the Grand Final being nearly two and a half months away.

Jarome Luai of the Panthers celebrates with Soni Luke

(Photo by Matt Blyth/Getty Images)

Cleary said the reality is “when you get to the finals you’ve got to win three games at least, maybe four, against the best teams”.

“They are really good. They’ve beaten Melbourne and the Cowboys the last couple of weeks,” Cleary said when asked about Cronulla at his midweek media scrum.

“They have just been ticking off wins and finding ways to win, they win differently. They definitely throw a lot at you but the Sharks have been like that for a few years now.

“This year their defence is definitely better too so it’s going to be a good test.”

Even if they put the Sharks to the sword, Penrith are unlikely to extend their competition lead to double figures with the Cowboys at home on Sunday against the struggling Tigers.

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