Last Dance? Tide rising against Penrith ahead of push for NRL four-peat

<span>Penrith lost 16-12 to Wigan in the World Club Challenge ahead of their campaign to target a fourth consecutive rugby league premiership.</span><span>Photograph: Jan Kruger/Getty Images</span>
Penrith lost 16-12 to Wigan in the World Club Challenge ahead of their campaign to target a fourth consecutive rugby league premiership.Photograph: Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Stephen Crichton, gone. Spencer Leniu, gone. Jack Cogger, gone. Zac Hosking, gone. Penrith have a lost a handful of players since their sensational second-half Lazarus-style comeback victory over Brisbane in last year’s NRL grand final, with Crichton and Leniu the biggest of blows, and maybe, just maybe the impact of those and other departures are now starting to be felt. Tiny cracks in the Panthers’ façade have finally appeared.

On Saturday night, on the other side of the world and in front of more than 24,000 fans, Penrith demonstrated that they are mortal after going down 16-12 to Wigan in an epic encounter in the World Club Challenge. After 33 years, and four different attempts at the trans-hemisphere trophy, they still cannot rightly call themselves the best club team in the world.

The NRL might not place as much value in the World Club Challenge as their Super League cousins, but the contest was instructive for several reasons. Firstly, it revealed that combined with St Helens’ upset win over the Australia champions at BlueBet Stadium 12 months ago, perhaps the gap between the two competitions is starting to close.

Related: Wigan edge out Penrith to win their fifth World Club Challenge

After years of stagnation, the English game is making strides in spreading its wings and improving its marketing, visibility and popularity. It still has a way to go to match its booming Australasian rival, which is ahead in salary cap, TV ratings, attendances, sponsorship, profile and every other marker going, but the very best of Britain can certainly rise to the occasion when it counts.

Wigan started with pomp and power at the DW Stadium, full of real defensive grit and an opening try scored by an Australian who was born in Penrith, former Manly winger Abbas Miski. For the first 26 minutes the English club were clearly in the ascendancy.

Frustration and rust were evident in the Panthers’ performance early, in conditions more Baltic than Blacktown. Often they were caught with ball in hand on the last tackle, unable to get a pressure-inflicting kick off. Five-eighth Jack Cole, filling in for the injured Jarome Luai and playing in only his second-ever first-grade game, was given a torrid time by Wigan’s defence with one hit leaving him needing attention from the trainer.

But then Miski spilled a Nathan Cleary bomb and the Panthers made him pay dearly, Cleary mopping up the scraps and converting his own try to make it 6-4. That lead only lasted for nine minutes though, with Wigan hitting back after Miski got clear on the right wing and found support inside for ex-Gold Coast hooker Kruise Lemming to cross.

A minute before half-time and the NRL premiers edged in front again. Dylan Edwards, sporting a freshly shaven barnet, burrowed over like a wombat with Wigan’s defence stretched, and Cleary added the extras to take it to 12-10 at the interval.

The Warriors, spurred on by famous World Club Challenge triumphs of the past over the Sea Eagles, Broncos and Sharks, would not lie down. Thirteen minutes into the second half and Jai Field grubbered in behind, and Jake Wardle somehow wriggled over. Advantage Wigan.

As the clock ticked down the intensity rose and Penrith blew two great chances to go in front, first Cleary knocking on and then Taylan May ignoring his support to be tackled into touch. Emotions ran high when Bevan French had a brilliant scrum base try from halfway ruled out by the video referee, before May miraculously looked to have tied it up right on the full-time hooter with a try in the corner.

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But it went to the video referee and to the delirious delight of the home fans, and to all of Super League, no try was ruled and Wigan prevailed. There was to be no golden point for Penrith, no conversion from the sideline, no magical comeback to add to the Panthers’ collection of Hollywood endings. No final flurry from the Mountain Men.

Yes, this was their first game in nearly five months and they will only get better, find their rhythm, find their mojo. But Wigan’s win shows they can be beaten, emphasising how excellent execution, discipline and defensive character can frustrate them into defeat.

“It’s a lesson for what we do from here,” Panthers coach Ivan Cleary admitted after the match. “We review it like every game and we move on. We looked fit, we looked ready.

“Our attack was a little clunky at times, which was not surprising. The first game of the season, some new combinations. We rued some missed opportunities.”

Penrith want a four-peat and they still have a good chance of getting it. They of course lost to St Helens in this event last year and still went on to win the NRL title. But there is no divine right to success, no certainty of immortality.

The NRL’s focus might be fixed on Las Vegas right now, but they should also have one eye squarely on events in Greater Manchester and the Panthers’ dramatic defeat that may have ramifications for the eight months ahead.