When Penrith won its eighth straight game at the weekend, equalling the record from the 2003 premiership team, the comparisons were bound to happen, and they’re definitely fair.
Speaking as someone who played in that grand final-winning side, the similarities don’t end at the impressive winning rate, they’re all over the park.
Back then we had Craig Gower – a dominant halfback who hit hard in defence, could lead a team around the field and was in prime position for the Dally M Medal. The award ceremony didn’t happen that season, but this year, Nathan Cleary is a good chance of making up for that.
His halves partner Jarome Luai has a very similar attacking flair to Preston Campbell, and Api Koroisau controls the ruck like Luke Priddis did.
Even looking at the centres, Stephen Crichton is only 19 years old but he’s got the speed, skill and footwork to match the likes of Paul Whatuira.
And the big men are almost identical to that dominant 2003 pack.
Isaah Yeo reminds me so much of our lock Scotty Sattler; an unsung hero who does all the hard work up the middle, ties up loose ends and comes up with huge plays that don’t necessarily get noticed, until they happen when your team needs them the most.
The way back-rowers Liam Martin and particularly Viliame Kikau run through and over defenders is very similar to what Joe Galuvao and Tony Puletua did 17 years ago.
Then you go to the front row, with James Tamou and James Fisher-Harris. They’re very similar to Joel Clinton and Marty Lang, just unbelievably good at getting the team on the front foot and moving them down the field.
One of the few ways this team is really different to ours is in the back three.
Caleb Aikens is playing really well at fullback and crucially doing what’s asked of him, not overplaying his hand, but isn’t quite in the same league as Rhys Wesser was during that premiership run. Meanwhile, guys like Charlie Staines, Josh Mansour and Brent Naden are a lot better than what I was out on the wing.
When me and Luke Rooney were playing, it was all about holding our shape and being ready for a downtown or cross-field kick to score some points. But now these young kids, they’ve got a totally different way to attack that tryline. Half of these guys score their tries with 90 per cent of their bodies over the sideline.
I don’t know how they do it, they’re just machines.
Defence and youth sets this side apart
This year’s side has attack all over the field, and so did we.
We were known for scoring points. Our approach was that if one team scored 20, we’d just score 30.
But the Panthers at the moment, they can create opportunities at any time, plus it’s backed up by their defence.
Our defence was always questioned during the year, but the 2020 team hasn’t let in any points in the first 20 minutes of a game since round one.
It’s been mind-blowing to watch. They’ve just got every box ticked at the moment.
Not only that, but this team’s even younger than we were in 2003.
Lang, Sattler and Ryan Girdler were all in the last couple of years of their careers when we won that premiership.
This time around, the only regular starters 30 or over are Mansour and Tamou, with guys like Cleary, Kikau, Crichton, Dylan Edwards and Brian To’o all 25 or under.
If they can keep this side together for two or three years under the salary cap, they’ve got a lot of success going their way because this side can do anything.
The biggest problem is when you win a grand final and you’ve got players that are playing the way the Panthers’ stars are playing at the moment, there’s demands to go to other clubs and their value goes up immensely.
Who can stop them?
The Panthers are alone at the top of the ladder, but they’re only one point ahead of the Storm and Eels. Plus you can never count out the Roosters because they always come good when it matters.
The Storm are probably playing the best footy of those challengers at the moment, but the Eels are finding ways to win ugly even though they’re in a bit of a flat patch after their 5-0 start, which included a win over Penrith.
I’d love to see a Parramatta-Penrith grand final. The battle of the west would make for a pretty special grand final.
If it wasn’t that, I’d love to see a Penrith-Newcastle grand final. Just to see a couple of sides with passionate fan bases that haven’t been there for a long time would be awesome.
The only downside for all of this for the Panthers is that their best season for who knows how long is coming during the COVID restrictions.
If they do win the grand final and it’s at the Olympic stadium, I think there’d be 10,000 people, so they won’t get to experience that crowd that you expect to experience on grand final day.
In 2003 when we were playing our best footy, winning games and sitting at the top of the competition, they had to close the gates at Penrith Stadium and put big screens outside, and I know that would be happening again right now.
There would be fans hanging from the rafters at the moment, which would be an amazing feeling for these young kids to get, especially because so many of them are local juniors.
That’s the only reason that I feel slightly sorry for those boys, because we got to experience that in 2003 and I know these guys would feel that support too if we weren’t going through these crazy times.
Regardless, with this week’s game against the Warriors, Penrith has a chance to break our record with a ninth straight win on Friday. Good luck to them. They’ve earned it.
Luke Lewis was speaking to ABC News Digital’s Jon Healy.