Hunger no issue as Penrith firm for historic three-peat


Nathan Cleary has declared hunger won't be an issue in Penrith's bid for a historic NRL three-peat, and says winning experience will keep the minor premiers calm through the finals.

Penrith remain the clear favourites to become the first team in 40 years to win three straight premierships, with rivals at Monday's finals launch almost unanimously labelling the Panthers the team to beat.

The NRL's salary cap rules are largely designed to stop dynasties such as Penrith's.

Of the 17 players who took to the field in their 2020 grand final loss to Melbourne, only eight remain at the club ahead of Friday's qualifying final against the Warriors.

Viliame Kikau and Apisai Koroisau's 2022 exits were expected to be hard to overcome, but Penrith still won this year's minor premiership with an improved defensive record.

Jarome Luai's shoulder injury looms as the club's current hurdle, but the five-eighth is due back later in the finals.

Cleary finds it hard to pinpoint how this team now compares to the one that first reached the grand final in 2020, with experience the obvious difference.

"Experience always helps, and the only way to get it is by actually playing," the Panthers' co-captain said.

"Thinking back, it just felt like a ride at that time. It was a whirlwind.

"We were just enjoying it. We probably weren't looking into it too much. We were just trying to keep it rolling.

"But now it's something we've done before. People are a lot more excited rather than nervous. Just with what we've been able to do and what it takes."

Combined with the salary cap, the question of hunger, the tendency for teams to lift against the reigning premiers, and the inevitable injuries have made dynasty-building especially difficult in the modern era.

Only seven teams in the game's 115-year history have won three straight titles or more, with none since Parramatta between 1981 and 1983.

"The opportunity itself is enough motivation," Cleary said. 

"Something we talk about a lot is that it's a battle against yourself. Trying to get the best out of yourself. That is motivation.

"Trying to get the best out of the group we have, not taking it for granted.

"It doesn't last for long, footy. You've got to make the most of it, particularly when you have a good team and system."

Penrith can book a spot in the grand final qualifier with a win over the Warriors on Saturday, while also ensuring they don't have to leave Sydney in September.

Friday night's combatants Brisbane and Melbourne are also two wins from the decider, while Newcastle, Cronulla and the Sydney Roosters all enter elimination finals on hot runs.

But all eyes are Penrith.

"It's pretty hard to say anyone but Penrith (are favourites)," Brisbane halfback Adam Reynolds said.

"The quality of the team that's there, and what they've done in the last couple of years, plays a big part into the structures that they believe so hard in.

"Their best and worst performances aren't too far apart. But otherwise if there's a smoky, it's probably Newcastle."