NRL 2018 OUTLOOK: PENRITH PANTHERS

Among the most polarising teams of the past couple of seasons, Penrith’s impressive collection of young talent quickly climbed the NRL hierarchy and went from an intriguing young team to competition dark horse within the course of a season.

Incorrectly cast as premiership favourites to start 2017, unreachable expectations skewed perceptions of the Panthers from the get-go, and the green outfit struggled with the pressure and adversity that came along with it. A year wiser and another finals series worth of experience under their belts, hanging with the teams at the top should come easier.

Improving their consistency has to be on the agenda for 2018: their biggest strength, their undying enthusiasm for unpredictable football, is a double-edged sword that saw their form go through peaks and valleys similar to the season prior. Years of finals experience, a well-balanced roster of young guns and veterans, and the lessons of coming up short for the past two seasons makes for the ideal combination, and many believe their time is now. Can Penrith finally break through the final frontier and challenge the competition’s elite?

2017 SNAPSHOT: 7th (13-11); Points For – 504 (6th), Points Against – 459 (9th).

BEST RECRUIT: For the third straight season, Penrith have added a veteran with premiership experience, picking up incumbent Blues five-eighth James Maloney in a swap for wantaway former skipper Matt Moylan. Maloney makes for an ideal fit alongside blossoming halfback Nathan Cleary, comfortable playing off the ball and functioning as more of a running half, whilst picking up some playmaking duties where necessary. The additions of Trent Merrin and James Tamou haven’t been the home runs they anticipated, but as all the pieces come together, Penrith have assembled a balanced roster with plenty of quality experience in key positions. Will James Maloney’s streak of transforming teams into premiership threats continue?

KEY MAN: Nathan Cleary is on the brink of superstardom, and the change in halves partner ensures that he will be front of centre of the attack in 2018. With all the tools and skills become one of the game’s premier players, the Panthers have ensured his rise continues by placing all the right infrastructure around him. We’re at the point of if, not when Cleary takes the leap – and with the moves they’ve made, the Panthers are banking on the Cleary era taking off in 2018.

UNDER THE PUMP: To call 2017 a struggle for Bryce Cartwright would be a huge understatement. Plagued by injuries and various off-field distraction, the once highly-rated back-rower missed a bunch of games and looked a shell of his former self when he finally did return, eventually losing his starting spot and the majority of his minutes. Too often he was caught forcing the issue, and with teams now anticipating his nifty passes and offloads, Cartwright will have to get back to basics to re-establish himself as a key part of Penrith’s core.

SELECTION POSER: Tyrone Peachy is an enigmatic talent, his best position still up for debate despite being in the league for five seasons. His qualities are obvious — an unpredictable, elusive attacking force and among the very best tackle-busters in the game — but he is a victim of his own versatility, and has yet to make any spot his own. One thing we know for sure: Peachy is not a centre. Playing the majority of 2017 on the edge, his defensive inefficiencies and lack of passing outweigh his offensive potency and creates an easy target for the opposition (the arrival of Maloney makes this especially problematic). On a team that is not struggling for offence, Dean Whare, a noted defender, makes for a better fit here. Peachy has to be in the 17, but providing impact through the middle third from the bench may still be the best choice.

YOUNG GUN: Injuries to Cartwright and James Fisher-Harris gave rookie Corey Harawira-Naera an unexpectedly large role right off the bat, and the young Kiwi quickly impressed and made the spot his own. A prototypical modern-day back-rower comfortable of playing 80 minutes, CHN has surpassed Cartwright on the depth chart and should continue to grow with more game-time.

BREAKOUT SEASON ALERT: Through his years at the club, the Panthers always flirted with moving Matt Moylan to five-eighth, but never followed through fully committed. The undeniable talent of Dylan Edwards forced their hand and he immediately locked down the custodian role. Already among the league’s best ball-runners — averaging 180m and six tackle busts in his rookie season —the elusive fullback is part-RTS and part-Gutherson, the calibre of player which he is compared, providing an accurate depiction of the immense talent he possesses. A full pre-season to grow familiar with the team structure should serve him well and his output might surprise some in 2018.

THE STAT: Penrith built their finals pedigree by taking care of business against inferior teams (11-4 against bottom-eight teams), but struggled against the competition’s heavyweights, winning only two of their nine meetings against fellow top-eight sides and failing to register a single win over a team ranked above them. The road to the top four, and potential contendership, is carved through improving this number. Also, the Panthers finished with the highest averages for missed tackles in 2017, a stat that obviously has to improve.

COACH’S JOB SECURITY DANGER RATING: Moderate – Anthony Griffin’s tenure as Penrith coach has been successful to date, qualifying for the finals both years he’s been in charge. That said, both campaigns finished outside the top four and resulted in second-week finals exits. With most of the roster hitting their prime, Penrith are expected to make the leap and become genuine contenders, so a higher finisher on the ladder and a deeper finals run has to be on the agenda. This season will swing the perception of ‘Hook’ one way or the other — another similar result and it won’t be long before the critics come calling.

THE DRAW: Glass Half Full – Their schedule is light on travel — only leaving Sydney three times through the first 19 games — and don’t have any particularly tough stretches against heavyweight teams. Play last year’s bottom four seven times.

Glass Half Empty – Play only two of their last seven games at home, which includes trips to Melbourne, New Zealand and twice to Queensland. Must have a top-four spot wrapped by then, and the travel fatigue may hurt them come finals time.

POSSIBLE LINE-UP TO START 2018:

1. Dylan Edwards
2. Josh Mansour
3 Dean Whare
4 Waqa Blake
5. Dallin Watene Zelezniak
6. James Maloney
7. Nathan Cleary
8. James Tamou
9. Peter Wallace
10. Regan Campbell-Gillard
11. Corey Harawira-Naera
12. Isaah Yeo
13. James Fisher-Harris

14. Bryce Cartwright
15. Villiame Kikau
16. Trent Merrin
17. Tyrone Peachey

WAY-TOO-EARLY FORECAST: Premiership dark horse, top-four contender

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