Penrith to chase NRL history as rivals try to keep pace

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Parramatta great Brett Kenny has declared Penrith deserving of being able to replicate his 1980s Eels as three-time premiers, but he still has one warning for the Panthers.

It's only going to get harder from here.

The Eels will kick off the NRL season against Melbourne on Thursday night at CommBank Stadium, as Parramatta begin their bid to go one better than last year's grand final loss.

Then all eyes will be on Penrith from the moment they start their season against Brisbane on Friday night.

The dominant force of the NRL since 2020, the Panthers can become the first side since Kenny's Parramatta team of 1981, 1982 and 1983 to win three straight premierships.

Kenny is not surprised no team has replicated that feat in the 40 years since, given the impact of the salary cap.

But in Penrith, he sees a realistic chance after their wins in 2021 and 2022.

"This Panthers side has probably been the most consistent team we have seen year in, year out, for a long time," Kenny told AAP.

"They have proven that. They've played three grand finals in a row and could look at four.

"It'd be something very special when you consider all the teams that have played since while there has been a salary cap and haven't been able to achieve that."

Kenny sees several similarities between Penrith and his Eels side.

Both had young, dominant playmakers in Peter Sterling and Nathan Cleary, whose halves combinations and entire teams featured in NSW State of Origin selections.

Lower-grade dominance has been the backbone of the top team's success, and both sides were built around young outside backs and more experienced forwards.

And for the most part, both have been the hunted.

"It's obviously going to be tough for them, they probably realise that now," Kenny said.

"After playing in three grand finals and winning two, they understand how hard it is the following year.

"People want to knock you off all the time, you're the yardstick and benchmark.

"And it gets harder each year."

One hurdle Kenny's Parramatta didn't have to contend with was the salary cap.

Of the 27 players who featured in Penrith's run to the 2020 grand final, 17 are now gone.

How they replace the power of Viliame Kikau on the left edge and Apisai Koroisau's spark out of dummy-half loom as the biggest question marks for coach Ivan Cleary.

"I've often said to people if we had a salary cap, after 1982 we may have never had that side together again," Kenny said.

"We had five players become internationals at the end of that year, and we would never have been able to keep them together under a salary cap.

"I think that's why there hasn't been a side able to win three in a row since."

But according to the only man to win three straight individual premierships in the past 40 years, it's more probable than improbable.

"They can absolutely do it," Cooper Cronk, who won titles at Melbourne and the Sydney Roosters between 2017 and 2019, said.

"It's basically reset the base again and go again.

"It might be a bigger mountain to climb but you've got to set your foundations early, got to be physically ready and mentally tough."

For all his and the Storm's brilliance, Cronk was unable to claim back-to-back premierships at Melbourne before doing so in his last two years at the Roosters.

"They need to double down on what they're good at," Cronk said.

"Their greatest strength is their defence. They'll double down on that.

"Defensively they're the best team we've seen in a long, long time so I don't think their style's going to change.

"They just need to fast track Mitch Kenny, who is a solid dummy half in place of Api Korisou."

Like Kenny, Cronk views Penrith as among the greatest teams of the modern era.

His Roosters are the pre-season favourites to take the biggest fight to Penrith, with Brandon Smith at hooker and Joseph Suaalii set to get more ball at centre.

Parramatta should be there again if they can overcome the exits of Reed Mahoney and Isaiah Papali'i, while South Sydney made a fifth straight preliminary final last year and have a fully fit Latrell Mitchell this season.

Questions have been asked if the end is near for Melbourne with Ryan Papenhuyzen's injury and big-name exits, but the Storm tend to respond emphatically in such scenarios.

Cronulla and North Queensland must both prove last year's top-four finishes were no one-off events, while Canterbury and Wests Tigers' rebuilds offer genuine hope.

The Dolphins could have a tough first year ahead with concerns over their roster, and the joker in the pack remains Manly with so much dependent on Tom Trbojevic's fitness.

But in the eyes of most, it is still Penrith they are all chasing as the Panthers chase their own history.

"They haven't had to make many changes, they would be confident in how they play," Kenny said.

"They have a great coach and a good system.

"I'm not prepared to say they will absolutely win it again. But they will definitely be in the top four.

"And barring injury, if they are able to get their best side on the field come finals they will be very tough to beat."

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