RCG and the Panthers surge into September reckoning

This article was first written for and published by NRL.com.

If we rewind to nine weeks ago, many (including myself) had all but written off the Panthers.

They were languishing towards the bottom of the ladder after losing eight of their first 10 games. At one point they suffered six straight defeats.

So, what’s the secret to this superb turnaround, one that has included seven straight wins and now has people talking of a top-four finish?

For Panthers prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard, the answer is simple.

“I think we went back to basics. Rugby league is very simple and I think we were overcomplicating things as to how we wanted to play,” he said.

“What works is going through the middle and giving our edges the ball and that’s what we are doing now and it’s obviously working.

“It helps that we’re winning some games at the moment … we’ve actually found some form and we just want to keep this winning streak going.”

The game may be simple, but it helps when you have some serious talent at your disposal and Penrith aren’t lacking in that department with players like Brian To’o, James Fisher-Harris and Viliame Kikau.

Additionally, there has been plenty of focus on Panthers halves James Maloney and Nathan Cleary.

Cleary has had a challenging season. Plenty of blame was levelled at him after the team’s poor start.

Many questioned whether he should be selected for State of Origin. Brad Fittler stuck with the young half, but unfortunately, he only played one-and-a-half games before injury struck.

That injury kept him out until last weekend where he helped boost the Panthers to a 40-18 win over the Dragons.

For Campbell-Gillard, the return of Cleary provided a major boost.

“Nathan just controls the ship. He is a player that can do something special and I thought he was fantastic on the weekend, to be honest,” he said.

“The combination between him and Jimmy is pretty special. He is definitely the Prince at Penrith and it is crazy that he only just turned 21 last year.”

Then there is Maloney, the men who has been key to the Panthers resurgence.

His inclusion in the NSW team for the final two matches of the State of Origin series was crucial with regards to the series win.

He has brought that form back with him to club level.

But as talented as he is on the field, Campbell-Gillard says you don’t want to get stuck next to him on the team bus.

“I try to sit as far away from him as possible and he is just obviously a very energetic and full of beans kind of player away from the field,” he said.

“Whenever I try to get away from him he follows and gets under my skin. He either sits by himself or next to me or Isaah Yeo depending on who’s the mood to put up with him.”

Penrith’s clash with Canberra on Sunday is the game of the round.

The Raiders have, for the past couple of seasons, been an incredibly entertaining team to watch. Ricky Stuart said his side did nothing but work on their defence during the pre-season. It is showing on the field.

They’ve been one of the most exciting teams on the field this year.

For the Panthers, their goal is to limit the Raiders’ brand of exciting football. Campbell-Gillard recognises the challenge awaiting his team.

“Our winning streak, we’ve come from right at the bottom, we obviously still want to test ourselves with the big teams that are higher than us,” he said.

“We have a perfect challenge this week in the Canberra Raiders. They are going fantastic this weekend. This Sunday is a big one for us and we’re ready.”

“Canberra are grinding out tough wins. Last time we played, it was a shocker of a game [the Raiders won 30-12 in round eight]. We are a better team now and I think the scoreline shouldn’t blow out like it did last time.”

If the Panthers beat the Raiders this Sunday there’s only one team above them on the ladder that they haven’t beaten this year – the Melbourne Storm. As that match-up … you’ll have to wait for the finals.