After an inconsistent season of slow starts, Penrith will be hoping for a more consistent 2019 full of complete 80-minute performances and a deeper finals run.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Tim Grant (Tigers), Malakai Watene-Zelezniak (Tigers), Tyrell Fuimaono (Rabbitohs), Hame Sele (Dragons)
Christian Crichton (Bulldogs), Corey Harawira-Naera (Bulldogs), Tyrone Peachey (Titans), Maika Sivo (Eels), Corey Waddell (Sea Eagles), Trent Merrin (Leeds), Tim Browne (retired), Peter Wallace (retired)
Eels (H), Knights (A), Storm (H), Tigers, (H), Titans (A)
WHAT TO EXPECT
The Panthers were the comeback kings in 2018, but it won’t be a title they want to hold onto. Week after week the Panthers would come out of the gates slowly, forced to claw their way back into matches. It was exciting, but it doesn’t win premierships. With Ivan Cleary now at the helm, his major focus will be to make sure the team is ready to go from the start and to get their defence sorted. They still have one of the best rosters in the competition, full of talent – both young and experienced – and if they can put on a complete 80-minute performance on a consistent basis they will be almost impossible to stop.
A lot of the responsibility for potential Panthers success rests on Nathan Cleary. It was a tumultuous off-season for the young halfback and his family, but the rugby league world has moved on and father Ivan is settled in as coach. No doubt 2018 was a successful year for Cleary, making his State of Origin debut and leading the Blues to a series win, but it was obvious the series took a toll; he was never able to regain his best form at the end of the year. He will have gained a lot from that experience and will be fully prepared for it should he hold onto that Blues jersey this year. The combination with halves partner James Maloney will continue to improve, and if Cleary continues to get better the rest of the competition had better watch out.
There weren’t many signings for the Panthers over the off-season, with the club more focused on re-signing current players and continuing to develop juniors. One signing to watch will be the addition of Tyrell Fuimaono. It was an injury-riddled 2018 for the young back rower but there’s no denying his talent. It will be interesting to see where he lines up for the Panthers with Isaah Yeo and Viliame Kikau firmly holding the current starting spots, but with Kikau’s injury likely to keep him out for at least the first two weeks of the season, Fuimaono should have a chance to show what he’s capable of.
Penrith’s draw holds few complaints, and the Origin period should be relatively kind. A home outing against the Sea Eagles prior to game one is the only match they will be forced to be without their Origin players. Assuming Cleary and Maloney hold onto their Origin spots, they still have Jarome Luai and Tyrone May to come in, and Luai and May have proven they have what it takes should they be required. Working against the Panthers is a tough run home. They will only play at home once over their last four matches, including back-to-back away matches against the Broncos and Cowboys, and then a face-off against premiership favourites the Roosters before finishing at home against what should be a very strong Knights team. If they can avoid the injury bug and come through the Origin period unscathed, that last month will tell us if the Panthers are the real deal.
Top Tryscorer – Waqa Blake
Top Pointscorer – Nathan Cleary
Club Player of the Year – Nathan Cleary
WHERE WILL PANTHERS FINISH?
When the Panthers are at their best, they’re arguably the most dangerous team in the competition. It will come down to their defence and whether they can string together consistent 80-minute performances. If they can improve in those areas, then a grand final berth could be on the cards. It’s still early days but with the talent they have on hand, it’s tough to see them finishing any lower than the top four.