For the third season in a row, the Penrith Panthers will be the defending premiers, while the rest of the competition try to reach their level of consistency and success.
However, this year it took the best 20 minutes of halfback Nathan Cleary’s career to slowly but surely turn the tide for his team in the grand final against Brisbane and become the first team in 40 years to achieve a premiership three-peat.
With key personnel moving to other clubs and speculation swirling around the future of star five-eighth Jarome Luai, questions are again being asked about whether the Panthers can continue their dominance of the NRL competition.
NRL.com examines the key talking points for the Panthers as they launch into the 2024 pre-season.
It is not so much who is going to stop Penrith adding to their trophy collection but a question of whether Ivan Cleary’s men can maintain their level of consistency to achieve not only a fifth straight grand final appearance, but go on to claim their fourth title in a row?
While you can’t really compare eras, it’s something that has not been done since the Dragons reigned supreme through the 1950s and 1960s to claim a world record 11 consecutive premierships.
While this current Panthers side have undeniably lost some of their more potent strike weapons to rivals, they have pathways in place to help unearth the next level of talent, with players ready and able to make the step up.
However, as their latest last-gasp victory against the Broncos in the grand final demonstrated, it will be tough for the men from the foot of the Blue Mountains to maintain their perch atop the NRL summit, with opposition teams aiming up for their shot at the champions.
Love him or hate him, Jarome Luai does not seem to really care either way and has also shown he’s comfortable being the topic of discussion when it comes to his playing future.
Currently contracted to the Panthers for 2024 only, there is no deal done yet beyond this season, although the club would no doubt prefer the three-time premiership winner remains to continue his partnership with halfback Nathan Cleary.
However, rugby league careers can be short, so it is beyond reasonable for the Samoa and New South Wales representative to explore what he’s worth on the open market, with plenty of clubs on the lookout for experienced halves.
While his style of play is considered more off-the-cuff rather than being an organiser – which would affect how he’d fit into a new set-up – Luai has some thinking to do in the short-term, with both the club and the player presumably keen to have his contract situation sorted sooner rather than later.
Next year, the Panthers will lose more than 300 games of NRL experience from their squad, with Stephen Crichton, Spencer Leniu, Jaeman Salmon, Jack Cogger and Tom Jenkins all moving to rival clubs. While Salmon, Cogger and Jenkins all played their part in Penrith’s recent run of success, replacing the contributions of Leniu and Crichton especially will be crucial to them remaining a dominant force.
While Penrith’s junior development and pathways has enabled them to pull up players they can rely on to slot into first grade and play their role, the departures will take some covering and the club will hoping their replacements, who include a returning Daine Laurie, can produce the same high-quality performances.
James Fisher-Harris had a year to remember in 2023, beginning with co-captaining the Māori All Stars in front of a home crowd in New Zealand, earning a Dally M Prop of the Year nomination, winning his third premiership with the club and finishing the football calendar by leading the Kiwis to a record victory against Australia to take out the Pacific Championships.
Viewed more as a player who lets his actions do the talking on the field, he was already seen as someone his teammates – and his fellow forwards in particular – were inspired to follow, but with his growing experience in leadership roles this past year, can this push him to climb even further with his performances?