Panthers do care what people think - that's exactly why they'll keep winning

When Penrith first graduated from loveable also-rans to competition heavyweights in 2020, they brought with them a swagger and attitude we hadn't seen from top teams in the past.

On the field, they were electric - but it was how they carried themselves both during and after matches, as well as off the field, that separated them. Plenty liked it, while plenty more were incensed.

They took to the field every week with a chip on their shoulder, as though every game represented a fresh chance to silence anyone who thought they'd fail. And for a while, people dismissed them - but after three grand finals and two premierships, not so much.

When you're on top for so long, the jeers and doubts are replaced by plaudits - and as more and more people have rightfully given them their flowers over the past three seasons, those morsels of doubt that they crave have become harder to obtain.

Going into the NFL play-offs in early 2019, the likes of Tom Brady and Julian Edelman insisted that nobody believed in the underdog New England Patriots. The reality was, of course, that everyone believed in the New England Patriots, to the point where if you had some sort of 'believability index', they'd be as far to the right of it as you could go.

That's kind of where the Panthers were a couple of weeks ago. Pre-season favourites with the bookies, returning champions, all doubters silenced. But after a shock loss in the World Club Challenge and a first round defeat to the Broncos, there were some slivers of disrespect to be hoovered up.

And however specious they were, they'd be found.

Latrell Mitchell suggested during the week that there were perhaps 'some cracks in the windshield' at Penrith - and while he was probably not being 100 percent serious, you can be sure those comments didn't fall on deaf ears.

But it's not just peers that can provide fuel for the fire - Nathan Cleary went as far as to make a video montage of negative tweets about the club - and not from anyone in particular, just a collection of anonymous randoms. Some of those messages would have had to have been actively searched for, rather than stumbled across organically.

From the opening set against the Rabbitohs on Thursday night, the Panthers looked every bit the juggernaut they've been since 2020. A massive disparity in the quality of carries early on allowed Cleary plenty of time and superb positioning for two attacking bombs on his first two kicks of the night - the first almost leading to a try, and the second doing so.

For three years' now, this is just what happens when the Rabbitohs play the Panthers. The forward battle is lopsided, Souths get desperate and push passes while behind, and end up losing in a close battle that flatters them on the scoreboard.

Tonight's game didn't tell us much about Souths - who were going to be up against it without two of their best forwards in Jai Arrow and Tevita Tatola - but it told us a whole lot about why anyone planning to write obituaries about Penrith's era of dominance should put the cap back on the pen.

Even at full time tonight a skirmish broke out as Dylan Edwards laughed in the faces of a couple of vanquished Rabbitohs, having just cleaned up one last, desperate effort that could have forced extra time.

Did he need to do that? Maybe not. But it just shows the hunger and the attitude shared by everyone in that team.

Some would argue it's petty to care about throwaway quotes made days before a game, much less the jibes of anonymous people online - but if never letting anything slide has worked for Penrith so far, why change?

Regardless of your work ethic, success can eventually build complacency - but not if you always feel like you have something to prove.

And for these Panthers, it will never be enough. That's why they're the benchmark.