Will Evans’ series of 2017 NRL club previews appeared in the summer special of Rugby League Review magazine.
After a shock coaching change, the young Panthers weren’t expected to contend for the finals under Anthony Griffin. The mid-season axing of key spine men Jamie Soward, Elijah Taylor and James Segeyaro could have also rocked the inexperienced side. Instead, they proved to be not only a team of the future, but a genuine contender in the present.
The Panthers shook off an inconsistent first two-thirds of the season to finish the year on fire and grab sixth spot. Their elimination of the Bulldogs in week one was arguably one of the most electrifying attacking performances seen on the finals stage in recent memory.
Bryce Cartwright, Tyrone Peachey and Peter Wallace starred in uncustomary positions, new captain Matt Moylan emerged as one of the NRL’s truly elite, Josh Mansour challenged for mantle of the game’s best winger, Nathan Cleary shapes as the hottest halfback prospect in decades, and Trent Merrin was one of the buys of the year leading a young and hungry forward pack.
Phil Gould’s vision for building a superclub is coming to fruition, with the Panthers’ many industry-leading initiatives off the field coupled by re-signing or extending no less than 11 of their first-choice line-up to at least the end of 2018 – with more new deals to come.
Besides bench regulars Suaia Matagi and Jeremy Latimore, and tyro forward Chris Grevsmuhl, who was released to deal with a family issue, only fringe players departed in the off-season, while James Tamou and Tim Browne arrive to bolster the pack and Mitch Rein provides an exciting dummy-half option.
Rein is likely to see plenty of time early in the season, too, with Wallace slated to miss the start of 2017 through injury. Mansour’s devastating knee injury suffered during the Four Nations is a blow, but there is stack of outside-back cover.
Whether the Panthers can live up to expectations is another matter – they struggled in 2015 after surging to a watershed preliminary final appearance the previous season – but on natural ability and potential there are few teams in the NRL that can compete with them.
If there’s a changing of the guard amongst the premiership heavyweights, Penrith are likely to be at the forefront.
BEST RECRUIT: James Tamou adds more experience and class to a youthful Panthers pack brimming with promise and ability. He may have been left out of the Kangaroos’ Four Nations squad, but the veteran of 12 Tests, 14 Origins and 170 NRL games remains one of the code’s premier props.
— Penrith Panthers (@PenrithPanthers) December 3, 2016
STRENGTH: A batch of the most talented, confident and daring young players our game possesses, along with just enough experience and mature heads to steer the team in the right direction, and a truckload of depth in most areas.
WEAKNESS: Injuries to key men Josh Mansour and Peter Wallace – two of their best performers in 2016 – could upset the Panthers’ continuity, while they haven’t quite shown they know how to buckle down and grind out a win in an arm-wrestle when required.
KEY MAN: As well as being the Panthers’ captain, Matt Moylan shoulders more of the playmaking load than just about any fullback in the NRL. A brilliant all-round No.1, Moylan’s ascent to Test and Origin status after an injury-hit couple of years will prove a boon for his club.
BLUES IN REVIEW: Matt Moylan
— NSW Rugby League 🏉 (@NSWRL) November 22, 2016
PLAYER TO WATCH: Peta Hiku was the forgotten man of the Panthers’ charge into the top eight, with his first season at the club ending after just 11 matches thanks to a knee injury. The versatile nine-Test Kiwi is all class, however, and is set to play a key role with Mansour missing for part of the season.
YOUNG GUN: Nathan Cleary is the most exciting teenage halfback prospect since Phil Blake. If he produces the same consistent and dynamic form as his rookie season, there’s no reason he shouldn’t come into consideration for the NSW Origin No.7 jumper.
UNDER PRESSURE: Waqa Blake enjoyed a fine sophomore campaign, scoring eight tries in 21 appearances – including four-pointers in his last six games of 2016. But New Zealand Test centres Hiku and Dean Whare return from injury next season to put the heat on the rangy youngster.
— telegraph_sport (@telegraph_sport) November 14, 2016
NEEDS TO IMPROVE: Michael Oldfield arrives to bolster the Panthers’ outside-back stocks, but the steady 25-year-old will have to show more than he did in fringe-player stints with the Sea Eagles, Roosters and Rabbitohs if he is to be anything more than a back-up at the foot of the mountains.
THE COACH: A controversial replacement for Ivan Cleary, Anthony Griffin did an outstanding job with a young, raw and effervescent Panthers squad. The unassuming ‘Hook’ left Brisbane with his reputation in limbo, but fully restored it with his outstanding guidance in 2016.
THE DRAW: The difficulty of the Panthers’ draw is mid-range, ranked ninth-hardest in the competition based on the 2016 standings. The Bulldogs, Raiders and Cowboys are their only fellow finalists they take on twice, while they have just about the least demanding travel schedule in the NRL.
That’s largely due to the Panthers bailing out of their two-year deal (with a two-year option in the club’s favour) with Christchurch after just one season, only offering the flimsy excuse that the team doesn’t want to travel to New Zealand twice (they have an away game against the Warriors in Auckland) – despite Phil Gould declaring in January his desire to make the city “a home away from home” and contribute to junior rugby league in the rebuilding earthquake-ravaged region.
While the largely unexplained back-flip has left plenty of South Island rugby league fans justifiably disgruntled, it may also assist their assault on the 2017 premiership. The Panthers only have five interstate trips (including Canberra) and are one of only three Sydney clubs who travel beyond the southern states’ boundaries less than four times.
Panthers unveil Christchurch plan – Panthers https://t.co/R3A4p0KrNR
— Phil Gould (@Gus10Gould) January 29, 2016
LAST FIVE COACHES:
Anthony Griffin (2016-current)
Ivan Cleary (2012-15)
Steve Georgallis (2011)
Matthew Elliott (2007-11)
John Lang (2002-06)
BEST LINE-UP IN 2017
1 Matt Moylan
2 Josh Mansour
3 Peta Hiku
4 Dean Whare
5 Dallin Watene-Zelezniak
6 Te Maire Martin
7 Nathan Cleary
8 James Tamou
9 Peter Wallace
10 Reagan Campbell-Gillard
11 Bryce Cartwright
12 Isaah Yeo
13 Trent Merrin
14 Tyrone Peachey
15 Leilani Latu
16 James Fisher-Harris
17 Tim Browne
— Penrith Panthers (@PenrithPanthers) December 16, 2016