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History suggests Penrith’s premiership window may be closing quicker than you think


As the NRL season rapidly approaches its penultimate rounds, top eight hopefuls are jostling amongst each other for seeding, home finals and second chances.

That is except Penrith, of course, who last week secured first place and the minor premiership, their second in three years (and third-straight top-two finish). It has been a dominant three-year stretch from the Panthers, resulting in two grand finals and what they hope are back-to-back premierships.

Media pundits don’t foresee this period of title contention ending anytime soon. Matthew Johns has fancied their chances of winning “four of the next 10 premierships”, noting the young age of the core group of players. Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai and co. are largely aged 25 and under.

This sustained success is starting to affect the future outlook of the Penrith roster with the increased difficulty of retaining players who have now proven they have what it takes to win a premiership. Matt Burton left for the Bulldogs last off-season and Viliame Kikau is set to join him there in 2023.

This type of player poaching from rival clubs is nothing new in rugby league folklore, the poisoned chalice that washes down the celebratory champagne. Panthers fans would be quick to argue that you can’t keep them all and the team have retained the right players and let the lesser ones go. But that’s not necessarily true.

On top of the aforementioned blue and white departures is the Wests Tigers-bound Api Koroisau.

The starting hooker was lured to the cellar dwellers for a contract upgrade and the long-term security for him and his family. Slightly older than the core of juniors, one would think that the 29-year-old Koroisau was an acceptable sacrifice brought on by the inevitable cap squeeze.

However, as is detailed below, the past 25 years of rugby league suggests otherwise.

Apisai Koroisau of the Panthers

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

How do NRL sides fare after their starting hooker leaves? And more concisely, how important is a quality hooker to a premiership winning side?

Going through the premiers in the NRL era (1998 onwards) the evidence paints a rather concerning picture for the Panthers’ chances at lifting the trophy post the 2022 season.

1998 – Brisbane Broncos 38 – 12 Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs

Grand final-winning hooker: Phillip Lee
Rep experience (includes after this game): No
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Jason Hetherington (eight Queensland caps, two Australia caps)

1999 – Melbourne Storm 20 – 18 St George Illawarra Dragons

Grand final-winning hooker: Richard Swain
Rep experience: 19 career games for New Zealand
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Nathan Brown (no career rep experience)

2000 – Brisbane Broncos 14 – 6 Sydney Roosters

Grand final-winning hooker: Luke Priddis
Rep experience: Five games for NSW, two for Australia
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Simon Bonetti (no career rep experience)

2001 – Newcastle Knights 30 – 24 Parramatta Eels

Grand final-winning hooker: Danny Buderus
Rep experience: 21 games for NSW, 24 for Australia
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Brad Drew (no career rep experience)

2002 – Sydney Roosters 30 – 8 New Zealand Warriors

Grand final-winning hooker: Simon Bonetti
Rep experience: No
Did player leave next season? Yes
If so next year finish: Grand Final runners up
Opponent hooker: PJ Marsh (three games for Queensland)

2003 – Penrith Panthers 18 – 6 Sydney Roosters

Grand final-winning hooker: Luke Priddis
Rep experience: five games for NSW, two for Australia
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Michael Crocker and Craig Wing (14 games for Queensland, six for Australia/12 games for NSW, seven for Australia)

2004 – Bulldogs 16 – 13 Sydney Roosters

Grand final-winning Hooker: Adam Perry
Rep experience: No
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Craig Wing

2005 – Wests Tigers 30 – 16 North Queensland Cowboys

Grand final-winning hooker: Robbie Farah
Rep experience: 16 games for NSW, eight games for Australia
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Aaron Payne (no rep experience)

2006 – Brisbane Broncos 15 – 8 Melbourne Storm

Grand final-winning hooker: Shaun Berrigan
Rep experience: 15 games for Queensland, 14 games for Australia
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Cameron Smith (42 games for Queensland, 56 games for Australia)

2007 – Melbourne Storm 34 – 8 Manly Warringah Sea Eagles

Grand final-winning-hooker: Cameron Smith
Rep experience: 42 games for Queensland, 56 games for Australia
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Michael Monaghan (no rep experience)

Joshua Addo-Carr and Cameron Smith of the Storm celebrate

Cameron Smith (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

2008 – Many-Warringah Sea Eagles 40 – 0 Melbourne Storm

Grand final-winning hooker: Matt Ballin
Rep Experience: one game for Queensland
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Russ Aitken (no rep experience) * Cameron Smith suspended

2009 – Melbourne Storm 23 – 16 Parramatta Eels

Grand final-winning Hooker: Cameron Smith
Rep experience: 42 games for Queensland, 56 games for Australia
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Matthew Keating (no rep experience)

2010 – St George Illawarra Dragons 32 – 8 Sydney Roosters

Grand final-winning hooker: Dean Young
Rep experience: One game for NSW, one game for Australia
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Jake Friend (three games for Queensland)

2011 – Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 24 – 10 New Zealand Warriors

Grand final-winning hooker: Matt Ballin
Rep experience: One game for Queensland
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Lance Hohaia (28 games for NZ)

2012 – Melbourne Storm 14 – 4 Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs

Grand final-winning Hooker: Cameron Smith
Rep Experience: 42 games for Queensland, 56 games for Australia
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Michael Ennis (eight games for NSW)

2013 – Sydney Roosters 26 – 18 Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles

Grand final-winning hooker: Jake Friend
Rep experience: Three games for Queensland
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Matt Ballin (one game for Queensland)

Jake Friend of the Roosters passes

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

2014 – South Sydney Rabbitohs 30 – 6 Canterbury – Bankstown Bulldogs

Grand final-winning Hooker: Api Koroisau (*Issac Luke suspended)
Rep experience: Three games for NSW (*43 games for New Zealand)
Did player leave next season? Yes (*no)
If so next season finish: Seventh, lost in finals week one
Opponent hooker: Moses Mbye (three games for Queensland) *Mick Ennis injured (eight games for NSW)

2015 – North Queensland Cowboys 17 – 16 Brisbane Broncos

Grand final-winning hooker: Jake Granville
Rep Experience: No
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Andrew McCullough (four games for Queensland)

2016 – Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 14 – 12 Melbourne Storm

Grand final-winning Hooker: Mick Ennis
Rep Experience: Eight games for NSW
Did player leave next season? Yes
If so next season finish: Fifth, lost in finals week one
Opponent hooker: Cameron Smith (42 games for Queensland, 56 games for Australia)

2017 – Melbourne Storm 34 – 6 North Queensland Cowboys

Grand final-winning Hooker: Cameron Smith
Rep Experience: 42 games for Queensland, 56 games for Australia
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent Hooker: Jake Granville (no rep experience)

2018 – Sydney Roosters 21 – 6 Melbourne Storm

Grand Final-winning Hooker: Jake Friend
Rep Experience: Three games for Queensland
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent Hooker: Cameron Smith (42 games for Queensland, 56 games for Australia)

2019 – Sydney Roosters 14 – 8 Canberra Raiders

Grand final-winning hooker: Sam Verrills/Jake Friend
Rep experience: No/three games for Queensland
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent Hooker: Josh Hodgson (19 games for England, four games for Great Britain)

2020 – Melbourne Storm 26 – 20 Penrith Panthers

Grand final-winning hooker: Cameron Smith
Rep Experience: 42 games for Queensland, 56 games for Australia
Did player leave next season? Yes
If so next season finish: First, lost preliminary final
Opponent hooker: Api Koroisau (three games for NSW)

2021 – Penrith Panthers 14 – 12 South Sydney Rabbitohs

Grand final-winning hooker: Api Koroisau
Rep Experience: Three games for NSW
Did player leave next season? No
Opponent hooker: Damien Cook (15 games for NSW, four games for Australia)

Damien Cook takes a run in the NRL grand final

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

If you’ve stuck with me this long, I’m sure that you have picked up on the alarming trend that I am trying to magnify: quality hookers aren’t just important, they are crucial to winning premierships.

Of the last 24 premiership-winning hookers, only four did not play, or go onto play representative football. That’s only 16.6 per cent.

Only seven of the last 24 runners-up featured a hooker with no eventual rep experience.

Only four premiership sides have let their starting hooker leave after winning the title. None of those sides went back to back, and only one made it to the Grand Final (Roosters 2003). In fact, outside of the Roosters, none of those sides who instantly parted ways with their rake ever made it to a grand final again!

If we extrapolate to include instances where the winning hooker eventually leaves (in other words not straight after lifting the trophy), only the following teams have gone on to win another premiership since.
– 2000 Brisbane Broncos (Phillip Lee left, but not directly after original 1998 winning season)
– 2006 Brisbane Broncos (Luke Priddis left, but not directly after original winning 2000 season)

That’s it, that’s the list.

In fact, only five NRL era sides have gone on to win another grand final after letting their premiership hooker go at any point: the two Brisbane sides detailed above, and the Sydney Roosters in 2013, 2018 & 2019.

All five of those sides featured a No.9 who had played or would go on to play rep footy (Luke Priddis, Shaun Berrigan and Jake Friend).

Now a lot of the above data may be skewed by the dominance by the immortal Cameron Smith and you might argue that I have been generous in including players rep experience after the fact.

However, the data speaks for itself: clubs don’t let premiership-winning hookers go, clubs don’t let representative hookers go, and when they do, they usually don’t recover.

This tells me three things about Penrith’s decision to let Api Koroisau walk this off-season:

1. They must really rate Mitch Kenny
2. They have their eye on another elite hooker who might potentially come available (here’s a hint: they don’t)
3. They think they can make do without an elite hooker and become the fifth team to win without one (in the NRL era)

It seems unfair that I have gone this far without mentioning Penrith’s rake in waiting: Mitch Kenny. Kenny too is a Penrith junior, the same age as the key players retained by the Panthers, playing alongside his compatriots in the under-20s system.

After some time in NSW Cup he made his debut for the first grade side in their Round 11 victory over the Eels in 2019. Since then he has played 54 games, mostly off the bench or to fill in for Api Koroisau.

This is a standard introduction to first grade for an aspiring hooker, as they await an opportunity from the incumbent. However, Kenny did not feature in last year’s preliminary or grand final, ditto for the 2020 grand final loss to Melbourne.

He has played more this year, with 19 games at an average of 33 mins off the bench (this would be skewed with Koroisau missing games through State of Origin commitments) but the reading still presents a largely unproven player that the Panthers are putting a lot of faith in for 2023 and beyond.

Here are his stats compared to Koroisau this season:

Mitch Kenny (19 games) vs Api Koroisau (23 games)
– 1 linebreak – 6 linebreaks
– 2 line break assists – 14 line break assists
– 2 try Assists – 13 try assists
– 1 try – 4 tries
– 22.5 tackles per match – 41 tackles per match

Signed until the end of 2024, Kenny might become a rep player in the future and make me eat my words, but so far I am not convinced.

Penrith have done an admirable job at retaining key members of their spine and there will be some continued stability as a result, but the idea of future dominance as an assumed formality is astonishing.

In the NRL era there has only truly been one dynasty, a side led by the best hooker and player in rugby league history.

The Panthers are cruising right now, but they have their work cut out for them if they want to reach those same heights.



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