Penrith prove defence still matters most

Penrith held minor premiers Melbourne to one try in an impressive defensive display in Brisbane.
Penrith held minor premiers Melbourne to one try in an impressive defensive display in Brisbane.

Defence wins premierships.

It's a mantra that has survived 113 years of rule changes, rugby league dramas and the overhaul of a competition from NSWRFL to NRL.

And on Saturday, Penrith proved that in the most up-tempo attacking season in recent memory, the old adage still rings true with their 10-6 preliminary final win.

Beyond that, the 80 minutes at Suncorp Stadium also showed why the Panthers will enter next Sunday's grand final against South Sydney as favourites.

For all the hype about their attack over the early parts of the season, the Panthers' defence remained immense.

They have conceded an average of 11.9 points per game in both 2020 and 2021, the best of any team since Melbourne in 2007.

All that, in a time where attack has been king.

The Storm had averaged one try for every seven play-the-balls they had in an opposition's 20-metre zone this year.

On Saturday, Melbourne had 28 tackles in Penrith's red-zone.

And it took 63 minutes for the Panthers to finally break, when Cameron Munster grubbered for a chasing Ryan Papenhuyzen to score his team's sole try.

"A couple of years ago we sat down and really wanted to make this team and this club a genuine top-four team and premiership threat," Penrith coach Ivan Cleary said.

"Historically you can't do it without good defence. It's the foundation of what we do.

"We spend a lot of time on it. We really value it. And it's certainly helped us in the last few weeks."

In one set late in the first half, both Kurt Capewell and Matt Burton made try-saving tackles from behind on Jahrome Hughes and Justin Olam as they charged at the line.

Forward Scott Sorensen also chased down Hughes as the Melbourne half claimed a loose ball and went 70 metres downfield.

It wasn't quite Scott Sattler on Todd Byrne, but it was still crucial.

It showed that when it matters most, Penrith will always find a way to prevent a try.

It was evident as early as round three, when Viliame Kikau pulled off a miraculous try-saver on Olam to win the first clash between the 2020 grand finalists earlier this year.

And it will be crucial again next Sunday.

Souths' defence meanwhile has improved out of sight since May.

They are nothing like the side that conceded 50 points to both the Storm and Panthers in the space of 17 days earlier in the season.

But it's well known no team has every recovered from letting in so many points in a match to go on and win the premiership.

The Rabbitohs have the game's most electric half this year in Cody Walker, and are farewelling a club legend at No.7 in Adam Reynolds.

But after Saturday's titanic defensive effort, a mighty challenge awaits them in trying to break Penrith's line.

Australian Associated Press