The Penrith Panthers are leading the NRL at the halfway point of a season for the first time since they won the minor premiership and title in 2003.
Round 13 has only just completed, but there are enough signs to suggest Ivan Cleary’s side are capable of cashing in for their own fairytale come the business end of the season.
Led by Craig Gower, Preston Campbell and boosted by the enthusiasm of a host of exciting young stars, the Panthers defied the odds to go all the way in ’03.
Cleary’s side boast similar ingredients.
Penrith’s 36-14 victory on the road against Gold Coast on Saturday was their eighth win from 12 matches this season, and there’s no reason for the club to take their foot off the pedal.
With no players participating in State of Origin at this stage, Cleary can continue marshalling an unaffected side while his rivals at the top of the ladder deal with the minefield of injuries and players unavailable.
However, coach Cleary, as cool and calm as they come, has been quick to play down his team’s premiership potential.
“No one hands out bouquets for halfway,” he said.
Penrith have one of the youngest teams in the competition, but importantly they have two old heads leading them around the park in halfback Peter Wallace and five-eighth Jamie Soward.
Wallace has played State of Origin and numerous finals series, while Soward is a grand final winner as well as being a NSW representative.
Next week Penrith take on an Origin-affected St George Illawarra, before enjoying a bye in round 15 while the likes of Canterbury, Manly, Melbourne and Parramatta are forced to back-up from State of Origin duties.
They face a tough test against the Warriors in Auckland, before returning to tackle a Robbie Farah-less Wests Tigers on the eve of Origin III.
In round 18 they tackle a Brisbane Broncos team crippled by their heavy Queensland commitment.
It’s a dream run which could see the Panthers stretch their advantage over Canterbury and Manly at the top of the table.
At the moment all three teams are locked on 18 points, but the Bulldogs and Sea Eagles are going to do it tough with their stars featuring as key men for both NSW and Queensland.
However, Penrith aren’t the only team defying the odds to present themselves as premiership contenders.
While ever Parramatta have Jarryd Hayne calling the shots at fullback, they are capable of anything – as showcased in Friday night’s 18-16 win over North Queensland.
In 2009, Hayne piloted the Eels from nowhere to the grand final, and five years on he’s twice the player he was then.
Wests Tigers also further cemented their place in the top eight with a thrilling 23-20 triumph over Newcastle, in front of 22,173 screaming Novocastrians at Hunter Stadium.
For a young side that has struggled in recent weeks without Farah and fullback James Tedesco, it was a crucial two points away from home, even though the Knights have now lost six on the trot.
“It’s an achievement for our players to come here and get the points, not many teams like coming here,” said Tigers coach Mick Potter.
“I don’t want to undersell what our players did out there today. It’s a real good achievement.”