It’s a very familiar state of being for the long suffering fan base – Penrith Panthers and their struggle against the injuries that cripple them. Last year’s season was the first in some time where their fans could be proud of their team’s ascension, finishing fourth on the ladder with a seemingly insurmountable number of first graders sitting on the sideline, and putting the sword to defending premiers the Sydney Roosters in the first week of finals, to boot.
This season was meant to be theirs – they scraped their near enough to the summit last year, less captain Peter Wallace, dynamic utility Tyrone Peachey, tackling machine Elijah Taylor, the prodigious Bryce Cartwright – but 2015 would be different. It seemed a given that they could not suffer as they had the year before, and with a refreshed and healthy team, what could stop them?
The answer was, of course, another plague of injuries. They struggled through the opening half of the season missing their much maligned (but locally treasured) half, Jamie Soward, as he underwent back surgery that would have seen him out of action sooner or later. Peter Wallace, Josh Mansour, Dean Whare, and James Segeyaro joined him in rehab at various times, amongst others. It was a struggle without Soward, but the Panthers managed to keep themselves firmly off the bottom of the ladder, hovering around 9th and 10th positions.
Soward returned in round 9, and Wallace returned just this week, in round 12. Things appeared to be on the up again, despite a disappointing loss to cellar-dwelling Parramatta at home. Then, naturally, something awful happened in the eleventh minute – their young gun fullback, Matt Moylan, could be seen down in back play. As it turns out, it’s a loss that looks to be for up to then weeks, with Moylan confirming today that he will be undergoing surgery for torn ankle ligaments later this week. The best case scenario has him back on field around round 18.
The question is: will round 18 be too late to salvage their season? They sit on a win-loss ratio of 50:50. While this is arguably a positive ratio, given their many rounds played without their ideal halves pairing (amongst other positions), Moylan has positively been one of their best from week to week, if not their best outright. Comparisons to last year seem futile, as their finals campaign in the wake of those injuries was headed by a fit and healthy Soward, with Moylan his right hand man. His goal kicking and the ability to shoot a good field goal aside, the lieutenant of the Panthers backline is one of their biggest losses to boot. In the absence of further injuries to other key positions, it seems that history would indicate that Panthers are every bit capable of hanging in there, awaiting Moylan’s return. With the Melbourne Storm fresh off a convincing loss to the Sydney Roosters, followed by a bye, the Bulldogs, Tigers and Rabbitohs making up their opponents until the best-case round 18 return, it’s tough to estimate how they will find their way through this period.
If the rest of their newly-minted first graders stand up to be counted, that will make all the difference in the world. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Bryce Cartwright and Isaah Yeo may now emerge as more complete platers, should they seize the opportunity to take a little ball-playing responsibility with both hands. Much depends on how the team culture copes with the resulting shuffle, with Dallin to fullback and stand-in centre Waqa Blake shifting to the wing to make way for the return of New Zealand national Dean Whare to his spot in the centres.
Can they mount another successful finals campaign? That remains a mystery for now. If one thing remains relevant from last year, it’s this: you can never count even the most crippled Panthers side out.