Under new coach Anthony Griffin, the Panthers had a tough start to the season, where seven of their first eight games were decided by less than six points.
Through the mid-season they traded back-to-back wins with back-to-back losses, until the run to the finals saw them win their last five straight games. They beat the Bulldogs in the first week of the finals before being overpowered by the Raiders in the semis.
After a superb late-season charge, Penrith blew Canterbury off the park in week one of the finals, producing some of the most scintillating tries witnessed in the post-season for many years.
The Panthers had a great opportunity to reach the preliminary final against an injury-hit Raiders outfit, but could only put together 20 minutes of their best form in a disappointing 22-12 season-ending loss.
Brilliant backrower Bryce Cartwright was oustsanding from the opening round; halfway through the season he was boldly moved to five-eighth, which lead to Penrith winning nine of their last 12 games. Nathan Cleary made a stunning start to his NRL career; the 18-year-old halfback formed a great combination with Cartwright and showed great composure and patience at such a young age and in the pivotal playmaker role. Josh Mansour, Matt Moylan and Trent Merrin all earned Four Nations spots after wonderful campaigns, while Tyrone Peachey and Leilani Latu produced breakout years and evergreen Peter Wallace was a massive success after being moved to hooker.
James Segeyaro and Jamie Soward came into the season as two of the Panthers’ trump cards, but both were England-bound by mid-season.
Promise in store
Most of the side has so much promise with nine of their players aged 21 or younger. Nathan Cleary, James Fisher-Harris, Te Maire Martin, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Bryce Cartwright, Isaah Yeo and Waqa Blake all had great seasons, while Dylan Edwards and Moses Leota also impressed in their limited game-time.
Round 24, 40-10 v Tigers. This result was their third high score in as many weeks, but it was the first against a genuine finals contender. The Tigers were in good form, having won 4 of their last 6 games, with one of those wins against the Panthers, but the mountain men sizzled in this Friday night clash to put one foot in the finals door.
Finals Week 1, 22-12 v Canberra. The semi-final pitted a confident and in-form Panthers side against a Raiders outfit rocked by an upset loss to the Sharks and injuries to a couple of key men. The Raiders were ripe for the picking, but the Panthers couldn’t execute as well as they had in their previous six weeks, falling behind 18-0 before mounting a brief second-half comeback.
Penrith’s backs were decimated by injury. Starting centres and Kiwi internationals Dean Whare (one game) and Peta Hiku (11) both had their season ending prematurely by severe knee injuries. Sam McKendry also missed half the season with injury, while Reagan Campbell-Gillard suffered a nasty back injury at the end of the year to leave their pack a key man short for the finals. Rookie five-eighth sensation Te Maire Martin suffered a shoulder injury after only six games, returning at the end of the year in reserve grade.
James Segeyaro and his infamous night out with some accused criminals saw him dropped to lower grades before being released.
A controversial appointment at the expense of Ivan Cleary, Anthony Griffin’s first year at the club had an up-and-down but promising start, and after several reshuffles to the spine, he finally found a combination that worked halfway through the year. He managed to get one of the youngest sides in the competition into the second week of the finals. This Panthers squad has a lot of potential and he looks set to steer them in the right direction.
Penrith have made one huge signing for 2017, picking up the Cowboys Test prop James Tamou, while the forward stocks have also been boosted by Canterbury’s Tim Browne. Michael Oldfield is a handy pick-up for their backline depth. The latest rumour is Dragons hooker Mitch Rein may be on his way out west.
— Nine News Sydney (@9NewsSyd) October 13, 2016
Johnathan Thurston. While Cartwright made a good fist of his role in the halves, he has more impact in the backrow. Picking up Thurston – and Phil Gould made a massive play for him a couple of years back – would make that move happen but also provide a great combination between the two, while also giving youngster Cleary some amazing experience and knowledge to draw upon.
Enduring such a disrupted first half of the season yet still managing to reach the semi-final means the Panthers can only get better next year. Martin should line up with Cleary in the halves, allowing Cartwright to return to one of the most talented and well-balanced packs in the NRL, which now includes a genuine top-shelf prop in Tamou. A fire-power laden backline completes the Penrith puzzle, with the club set to give the 2017 premiership a real shake.
ICYMI: Dream debut, nightmare injury & now a Kiwis’ call up. We go 1-on-1 with Te Maire Martin. (@PhotosportNZ).
— KiwiLeagueCentral (@KiwiLeague) October 9, 2016
6th place – Won 14, Lost 10; For 563 (equal-4th), Against 463 (8th)