With the season opener just around the corner we look at how the Penrith Panthers will go in 2018.
The Panthers will look to put a disappointing 2017 campaign behind them and start to restore the faith fans have put in the men from the foot of the mountain.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
James Maloney (Cronulla Sharks), Tyrone Phillips (Bulldogs)
Sitaleki Akauola (Warrington), Darren Nicholls (Dragons), Matt Moylan (Sharks), Mitch Rein (Titans), Leilani Latu (Titans), Bryce Cartwright (Titans)
Eeels (H), Rabbitohs (H), Bulldogs (A), Cowboys (A), Eels (A)
WHAT TO EXPECT
Flashback a year and the Panthers were one of the preseason favourites to take out the Grand Final with one of the most promising and deepest rosters in the competition. After a disappointing campaign and an off-season with rumblings about an unhappy playing group, expectations might be lower but the pressure will be on Anthony Griffin to get results.
After building one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the NRL, cracks have started to appear in the Panther’s playing roster with stars Matt Moylan, Bryce Cartwright and Leilani Latu all moving on from the club. Adding to this is the constant speculation of an unhappy playing group and Tyrone Peachey committing to the Titans for 2019.
Despite the losses to their roster, Penrith will run out with one of the most talented and brilliant halves pairings in the competition. Nathan Cleary is arguably the best young halfback in the game and single handily guided his side to victory in many games in 2017 becoming the youngest player in history to finish the season as the highest pointscorer in the NRL. He shows a mental toughness beyond his years and always gives his side a chance when he is on the field.
James Maloney has been recruited to the club and should bring a winner’s mentality after being part of recent premierships at the Roosters and the Sharks. Maloney has a plethora of experience and is one of the best game managers in the competition which will only help guide Cleary’s development into one of the game’s best players. With the enigmatic Dylan Edwards at fullback and newly appointed captain Peter Wallace at hooker, it blesses the Panthers with one of the more balanced spines in the competition a key component for any club hoping for premiership success.
While putting points on the board has never been an issue, defence and ball control will be the biggest area of improvement needed from the Panthers in 2018. Last year, Penrith missed more tackles than anyone else in the competition (947) and averaged the fourth most errors (11.0). These are killer areas for a side attempting to play finals football and will be Anthony Griffin’s main points of emphasis heading into this season.
It was the errors that ultimately brought the side undone in their semi final against Brisbane where despite gaining repeat sets close to the opposition try line, a lack of communication and discipline robbed them of the opportunity of converting this pressure into points. The addition of Maloney should help improve this area and give the side more composure in these pressure situations.
Without question, Anthony Griffin will start 2018 as the coach under the most pressure and a poor start to the year could throw the club into potential chaos. With the club playing five clubs who did not feature in finals football in the first ten rounds, the Panthers have an opportunity to release some pressure early. Also with a streak no longer than three games against teams who made the finals in 2017 there is a great opportunity for the club to build up some wins. An added bonus for the Panthers is that they only have one game respectively against competition heavyweights Melbourne and Brisbane, giving Penrith a more favourable draw than most.
Top Tryscorer – Josh Mansour
Top Pointscorer – Nathan Cleary
Club Player of the Year –James Maloney
WHERE WILL PENRITH FINISH?
Without doubt, the first month of the competition will determine Penrith’s success with early wins having the potential to catapult the team into finals action for a third consecutive season. However, if the losses pile up early the drums will be marching for a coaching change which might derail the season. There are too many talented teams for the Panthers to make the top four but expect the calming presence of James Maloney to get the team on track and finish seventh.