Penrith’s spluttering 2017 season has turned a full 360 degrees with last Sunday’s 42-14 train-wreck loss to lowly Souths bearing eerie resemblance to the equally unexpected Round One thrashing at the hands of St George-Illawarra.
The Panthers were coming off a tough loss against the Thurston-less Cowboys in the Townsville heat eight days earlier and had never beaten Souths at ANZ Stadium in six previous attempts.
But Penrith were still heavily backed favorites to defeat their 12th placed opponents given the likes of Matt Moylan, Josh Mansour, Tyrone Peachey and Waqa Blake were notably absent in their unlucky 21-20 loss at home in Round 6.
But a promising opening twenty minute period was followed by the next forty minutes which quickly plummeted out of Penrith's control on the back of an errant Matt Moylan pass that was gleefully pounced upon by Alex Johnston to score the first of his five tries.
That forty minute period was nothing short of embarrassing as the Panthers conceded 42 unanswered points with an almost non-existent defensive performance.
To further emphasise just how poor that performance was, Souths were unable to defeat a Sydney Roosters missing four players to Origin earlier tonight and were restricted to just 12 points in the process.
Whether its been defensive lapses such was the case against Souths, or having a distinct lack of respect when in possession that has plagued performances in previous losses, it's been the magnitude of the ineptness in these required disciplines of the game, that has rocked Penrith's 2017 campaign to the core.
Rightly or wrongly Penrith were installed as premiership co-favorites before a ball had been kicked in anger.
Nonetheless favorites they were made on the basis of not only having one of the softest draws in 2017 but also on expectation that one of the NRL's most inexperienced but talented rosters with an extra year under their belt, coupled with the additions of props James Tamou and Tim Browne and hooker Mitch Rein, would improve on 6th place.
But instead of pressing for a top-four spot most experts expected, the Panthers now find their finals hopes teetering on a knife's edge, having to win at least six possibly seven of their last nine games just to make the eight, despite having six of those games at home.
There have been plenty of false dawns for expectant Panther fans based on the season before's results.
In 1992 as defending premiers, the Panthers failed to make the finals but there were tragic circumstances which I think we all understand played a significant part.
In 2001, Penrith went from being semi-finalists the previous season, to wooden spooners the next, and culminated with the departures of coach Royce Simmons and chief executive, Mark Levy.
And in 2015, the preliminary finalists of 2014 went within a game of becoming wooden spooners which, despite coming on the back of a crippling injury crisis, was deemed by the club not to be good enough excuse for their lowly position on the ladder and consequently parted ways with their 2014 Dally M Coach of the Year, Ivan Cleary.
But never before have Panther fans come into a season so high on expectation as this, only to instead face the harsh reality that by this time next week, they could find that their team, whom many predicted were more capable of challenging for their third
premiership title, instead find themselves incapable of challenging for a finals spot.
Not even injuries, which has been a perennial issue for the Panthers in prior seasons, can be used as an excuse in 2017.
From Penrith’s strongest seventeen-man squad and going into this weekend's must-win clash with Manly, only Josh Mansour (eleven games), James Fisher-Harris (ten), Bryce Cartwright (ten) and Peter Wallace (five) have missed more than two games through injury so far in 2017 (it remains to be seen how many games Dean Whare will be sidelined for with his fractured jaw).
Photos: 77 Media.
To further heighten concerns, apart from cellar-dwellers Newcastle, Penrith are also the only club in 2017 yet to register a win against top-eight opposition.
The importance of this?
To make the finals, Penrith will need to find a win at least one possibly two games against top-eight opposition given they have four of their last nine games against teams currently in the eight.
Penrith only have to play top-eight teams only eleven times in 2017, a scenario most NRL clubs would envy.
But the ugly truth is should Penrith fail to defeat the high flying Manly Sea-Eagles either at home or away, or home games against a Johnathan Thurston-less North Queensland or St George-Illawarra, it will be the just the third time in the club's 51-year history that a Panthers side has failed to defeat a finals-bound team and the first since 1980.
And while that 1980 side won just two games and drew another, the club at that time did not have the calibre of representative-class players in Matt Moylan, Josh Mansour, Dean Whare, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Trent Merrin, Peter Wallace, James Tamou and James Fisher-Harris in its playing roster to draw upon either.
Quite simply Penrith do not have the excuses of seasons past to offer to it's increasingly impatient fan-base that now expects premiership success sooner rather than later.
It's also a fan base that is having an increasingly hard time comprehending how the club, despite it's less than ideal current position on the NRL ladder given those expectations, could possibly consider extending the contract of current coach Anthony Griffin beyond 2018.
There is more than enough time and talent in this squad to resurrect what has been a very disappointing season to date for all concerned and still make the finals.
But if it doesn't start with a win over Manly and followed up by another in Auckland next Friday night, Panther fans can start planning for yet another September holiday and contemplate 2017 being quite possibly their most disappointing season of them all.