It was a whirlwind season for the Penrith Panthers in 2018 full of drama and miraculous comebacks but they once again were unable to push deeper into the finals, knocked out in the second week.
2018 Club Record
Competition Points: 32 (5th placed)
2018 Player Achievements
Merv Cartwright Medal Player of the Year: Isaah Yeo
Most Tries: Waqa Blake (13)
Most Points: James Maloney (126)
The Panthers came into the 2018 season with a sense of uncertainty as many struggled to predict how their year would turn out. A new star recruit in James Maloney had many believing he and young halfback Nathan Cleary could form one of the stronger halves combinations in the NRL, and the pair did enough to earn State of Origin selection and lead New South Wales to a rare series win.
It didn’t take long for the Panthers to make their mark on the competition, as they were dubbed the comeback kings early on in the season. Their first two games of the season they overcame 14-point deficits against the Eels and Rabbitohs, and time and again they were able to win from seemingly impossible positions. None was more impressive than their Round 20 win over the Sea Eagles in which they scored four tries in seven minutes to complete a stunning comeback. There were a number of results in which the Panthers would be very disappointed, highlighted by poor showings at home against the Sea Eagles and Knights, and none worse than the 50-18 thrashing at the hands of the Broncos in round 19.
The Panthers were forced to deal with a number of key injuries throughout the year. Cleary missed extended time at the start of the year, which went on to prove how important Maloney would be for this side as he single-handedly lead his side to a number of key victories. Dylan Edwards suffered a season ending shoulder injury in round 8 and Josh Mansour was forced to miss a large number of games after a gruesome fractured cheekbone injury. The injury to Edwards gave Dallin Watene-Zelezniak a chance to show what he can do at fullback, with some very strong showings at the back will no doubt give coach Cameron Ciraldo a few headaches heading into the 2019 season.
Amidst all the drama on the field, there was no shortage off it. Anthony Griffin was in the news headlines all season as his role as head coach was constantly under threat and there were continued reports that he had lost the playing group. In a stunning move, Griffin was sacked just one month out from finals despite the Panthers sitting in the top four at that time. Assistant coach Ciraldo took over and managed to get his side just one point away from a preliminary final.
It was a massive call by Phil Gould and the Panthers and it started a bitter feud between Gould and Griffin, and begun plenty of speculation that they were going after Ivan Cleary to take over. That speculation has not ended but for the time being Ciraldo has a full off-season to get what is still one of the more talented rosters ready for a big 2019.
NothingButLeague Player of the Season
There were a number of players who stood up for the Panthers this year, with players like Isaah Yeo and James Fisher-Harris consistently strong in the forward pack. James Maloney was strong all season, his experience coming through when it was needed.
However, the emergence of Viliame Kikau as a genuine star this season is too much to ignore. After struggling to crack into first grade last year, a strong World Cup campaign for Fiji showcased his true talent and he became a deadly weapon on that left edge for the Panthers all season.
He finished the season with 1,357 post contact metres, 105 tackle breaks, 11 line breaks as well as 44 offloads. He was almost impossible to stop and would make the highlight reel almost every game, none better than his barnstorming run in the semi final against the Sharks to set up Waqa Blake and a grandstand finish.
2019 GAINS AND LOSSES
Tim Grant (West Tigers, 2019)
Tim Browne (retired), Oliver Clark (Wests Tigers), Christian Crichton (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Tom Eisenhuth (Melbourne Storm), Corey Harawira-Naera (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Soni Luke (released), Tyrone Peachey (Gold Coast Titans), Maika Sivo (Parramatta Eels), Corey Waddell (released), Jayden Walker (retired), Peter Wallace (retired)