23 matches: 20 wins, 2 losses, 1 draw
Top point scorer: Nathan Cleary – 208 [8 tries, 86 goals, 4 field goals]
Top try scorer: Stephen Crichton – 15
Merv Cartwright Medal: Nathan Cleary
The Panthers first serious hit out for 2020 was the Perth Nines tournament in early February – after being one of the form teams throughout the group stage, they were rather controversially eliminated by the Dragons in the quarter final, losing on the siren to a try that on replay was shown to be grounded over the dead ball line.
The opening round in mid-March started in the looming shadows of the coronavirus pandemic. Defending premiers Sydney Roosters visited Panthers Stadium, and went back east empty handed, with Penrith over running their opposition in the second half to record a well deserved 20-14 victory.
With government restrictions soon after imposed on the gathering of public crowds, the second round proceeded, but with crowds locked out. At an empty Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, they out lasted St. George Illawarra in a high scoring encounter.
With ever growing concerns of public safety arising from the pandemic, the season was suspended the following week. Whilst there were initial fears that the season could not resume, it was soon confirmed that a resumption date of 28 May had been targeted, however would be subject to strict biosecurity measures. All 16 teams would be placed in ‘bubbles’ which restricted their movements away from training and matches – in late April, halfback Nathan Cleary was fined and suspended by the NRL for a breach of the bubble.
A revised draw was released, and the premiership rounds reduced from 25 to 20, with the finals series pushed back three weeks and a late October grand final. Any points earned from the first two rounds would be retained, which was of benefit to the undefeated Panthers, although there were five other teams that enjoyed that record and were sixth on the table based on for and against.
Another biosecurity measure was restricting the number of venues, with the NSW based teams as well as Canberra being allocated one of three stadiums as their designated home ground. Panthers Stadium did not make the cut and as such they had to travel to Campbelltown Stadium for their home matches. However, there was a glimmer of hope – if the situation improved, this may only been a short-term measure with the possibility of teams being able to return to their home grounds later in the season.
It was at Campbelltown where the season resumed for Penrith, with a rare golden point draw against Newcastle, once again in an empty stadium.
Throughout June, they would record a big win against the NZ Warriors (which due to international travel restrictions had agreed to be based in Australia for the whole season), a tight loss to neighbours Parramatta, hard-fought victories against Melbourne and South Sydney, and had climbed to second on the ladder. The Panthers were starting to emerge as a premiership threat – their issues with attack had been remedied, often passing 30 points in a match. In their 56-24 hiding over the Sharks in Round 9, Charlie Staines crossed for four tries in a record equalling performance for a player on debut.
Furthermore they had turned into a formidable defensive unit – the Panthers held the remarkable record through the first 15 rounds of keeping their opposition scoreless in the first 20 minutes.
In July, they returned home to Panthers Stadium, and with it crowds – albeit at a 25% capacity, and their victory over North Queensland saw them gain the outright competition lead.
It would be a spot they would not relinquish for the remainder of the premiership season, as they embarked on a record-breaking season – firstly, they recorded their best ever start to a season in Round 11 with victory over the Gold Coast Titans, and soon after the club record of 8 wins in a row set in 2003 was broken with a victory over the Warriors at Gosford, and it kept growing as the premiership rounds were drawing to a close.
In the penultimate round, the Panthers secured their third minor premiership with an away victory against North Queensland and sealed their dominant season in the premiership rounds with a record breaking 42-0 victory over Canterbury. This was their 15th straight victory and Penrith had recorded the best season for any team since St. George in 1959, losing only one match (and one draw) throughout the 20 premiership rounds. Furthermore, they remained undefeated at Panthers Stadium.
As minor premiers, the Panthers had earned a home final at Panthers Stadium and were to play the Sydney Roosters. The ever-improving situation with the corona virus had seen the NSW government increase capacity to 50% for the finals. After conceding the first two tries to trail 10-0, the Panthers surged with 26 unanswered points (including a first half hat trick to Nathan Cleary) to lead 26-10. However, they had to withstand a comeback from the Roosters, and in the end a Nathan Cleary field goal was the difference. Their victory by the narrowest of margins earnt them a week off and straight to the preliminary final.
Their opponents would be the resurgent South Sydney, who had entered the finals series as one of the form teams. After conceding the first try, the Panthers scored the next two to hold a 14-6 half time lead. The Rabbitohs would cut it to a two-point margin, before stretching ahead to 20-12. Whilst the Rabbitohs finished the match strongly, they were not able to completely bridge the deficit and the Panthers hung on to qualify for their first grand final since 2003.
They had also extended their streak to 17 matches, the equal longest in the NRL era (1998 onwards), matching the 2002 Bulldogs.
Whilst the favourite amongst many pundits, Nathan Cleary missed out on the Dally M medal, however was one of a number of players in the Dally M Team of the Year, alongside Stephen Crichton, Viliam Kikau, James Fisher-Harris and Isaah Yeo, with Ivan Cleary awarded the Dally M Coach of the Year. Stephen Crichton was in the mix for Rookie of the Year but also missed out on the award.
Up against the more experienced Melbourne Storm in the decider, the Panthers turned in their worst performance of the season, trailing 22-0 at half time. This was soon extended to 26-0 after the resumption, before a stirring comeback with four unanswered tries saw them fall 6 points short at full time – but not before being given one last opportunity with seconds remaining to potentially force it to golden point.
It was a disappointing end to one of the most dominant seasons ever witnessed, however a number of players were rewarded with selection for both New South Wales and Queensland in the rescheduled State of Origin series that occurred after the grand final.
In December, Nathan Cleary was awarded the Merv Cartwright Medal for player of the year.