After reaching the top of the mountain, Penrith have it all to do again when their defence of the NRL premiership kicks off at home against Manly.
The Panthers had no right to get to last year’s grand final, let alone win it.
Towards the end of the year Ivan Cleary’s squad, who had largely escaped with bangs and bumps throughout the season, were beginning to falter.
They fell to South Sydney in the first week of the finals and looked to be spent.
Through grit and determination they got over Parramatta and an imploding Melbourne before exacting revenge on the Rabbitohs in the grand final.
The Panthers are now tasked with doing that all again, starting against the Sea Eagles, but for Cleary at least, everything they achieved is in the past.
‘I think the whole defending premiers thing is just an external thing,’ he said.
Penrith’s chances of going back to back will largely hinge on the performances of gun halfback Nathan Cleary, who will miss the first three rounds as he recovers from a shoulder reconstruction
With other players moving on, grand final hero Stephen Crichton will shift back to the centres after he played on the wing in 2021
‘It’s not something we speak about. That was a moment in time that we are super grateful for, it was so awesome.
‘But you can never replicate it. It’s a nice feeling, I think if anything it just gives you that thing that if you can touch it and actually experience it, it makes you want to do it again.’
Much of their chances will hinge on the fitness of Cleary’s son, their halfback and possibly the most influential player in the game right now, Nathan.
The No. 7 battled a shoulder injury all through the back end of 2021 and has undergone surgery in the off-season.
He is expected to return in round four, but any chance of Penrith retaining the premiership will depend on his fitness.
Only the 2018 and 2019 Roosters sides have been able to win back-to-back titles in the NRL era and it’s perhaps why the Panthers are looking elsewhere for inspiration as they seek to replicate last season’s feats.
‘My motivation is not losing the hunger I had at the start,’ centre Stephen Crichton said.
‘There’s no point wasting a training session. I think some players might take it slow if they’ve achieved stuff.
‘I look at (NBA legend) Kobe Bryant and how he kept going to the next level. It’s all down to your training ethic and trying to make yourself better mentally and physically.’
Penrith’s success – a minor premiership and a premiership in the two seasons following Cleary’s underwhelming first year back at the club – has been built on the camaraderie of a close playing group.
But already the band has started to break up.
Of last year’s grand final starters, reliable back-rower Kurt Capewell (Brisbane) and centres Matt Burton (Canterbury) and Paul Momirovski (Sydney Roosters) have headed for pastures new.
Brent Naden (Canterbury) and Tyrone May (Catalans) also departed.
Hooker Api Koroisau and back-rower Viliame Kikau will play out the 2022 season with the Panthers before moving on next year.
‘It’s always a shame to lose the people that we did,’ Nathan Cleary said.
‘They were a big part of this team and it’s tough losing them.
‘Losing them gives opportunities to other people and there’s a lot of young talent here and I’m looking forward to seeing other people get their opportunities.’
Kiwi enforcer James Fisher-Harris was one of Penrith’s best players across the 2021 season
Cult heroes Brian To’o and Stephen Crichton are proud residents of western Sydney
Penrith have brought in Sean O’Sullivan (Warriors), Chris Smith and Christian Crichton (both Canterbury) and while they might not be of the same calibre as those they are replacing, they add valuable NRL depth and experience to the Panthers’ roster.
But where other clubs might fall away, the Panthers are aided in part by having one of the most solid production lines of talent in the game.
Izack Tago is expected to come into the centres, Charlie Staines is likely to slot in on the wing and prop Mavrik Geyer, the son of club great Mark, has impressed in the club’s pre-season trials.
Even with all the departures, Penrith’s squad is still incredibly young. Co-captain Isaah Yeo is 27, James Fisher-Harris is 26 and Koroisau remains the club’s elder statesman at just 29.
‘It’s still early in our careers and we were all still so young and didn’t have the games and the titles under our belts,’ said winger Brian To’o.
‘To reach that goal was a massive achievement but I think that’s what drives us to go for it again.’