When will the Panthers take the next step?

PENRITH stormed into the finals after a lacklustre opening to the season, won in the first week of the finals before they travelled interstate and lost to a team who went on to be beaten by Melbourne in the preliminary final.

The above sentence could describe both the 2016 and 2017 seasons for the Panthers.

Twelve months on, Penrith remain in the same position as they were in this time last year — can 2018 be the year the can stops getting kicked down the road?

WHERE THEY FINISHED

Penrith came in at seventh after the regular season, winning 13 games and losing 11 after winning 14 and losing 10 in 2016.

A controversial but deserved win over Manly precipitated a 13-6 loss to the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium, consigning the Panthers to 6th place overall for the second year in a row.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

The start to the season was nothing short of a disaster. Penrith lost seven of their first nine to crash to 15th on the ladder with their only victories coming over Newcastle and Wests Tigers.

While they did right the ship eventually and even pulled off a seven game winning streak running into the finals, competing against the best sides in the competition was always an issue — Penrith’s only wins against top eight teams all season came against the eighth placed Cowboys before the finals and their two victories over Manly.

Panthers’ start to the season was a disaster.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Nathan Cleary took another step forward in his first full season of first grade and continues to look like the future of the club. They also unearthed a trio of excellent rookies in Dylan Edwards, Tyrone May and Corey Harawira-Naera — Edwards in particular changed the dynamic of the team with his excellent work rate and kick returns, he is certainly a long-term player for the club.

It’s a shame that May’s pre-season will be so disrupted by his recovery from a knee injury given how comfortable he looked in the top grade.

Reagan Campbell-Gillard also progressed well, evolving into one of the most damaging props in the competition by season’s end. The team as a whole showed great resilience to rebound from their terrible start to the year — not many teams would be able to come back from the hellish position they found themselves in.

STAT THAT SUM UP THE SEASON

The Panthers had the sixth best attack in the competition and the ninth best defence — they were stuck in the middle of the ladder in every respect. Penrith are more than capable of dispatching teams on the outside of the top eight but struggle against top four opposition. They’re 1/12 over the last two seasons against the teams who finished in the top four in 2016 and 2017.

IT’S A SHAMBLES: THE MAIN AREA THEY NEED TO IMPROVE

Penrith sorely need some stability around their squad as a whole and especially in their spin. Nathan Cleary has been the sole constant over the last 18 months with Matt Moylan battling injury, personal problems and switching from fullback to five-eighth while Peter Wallace has also spent some time off the park. If Matt Moylan does exit the club, as some are speculating, it may be a blow but it could also give the club the chance to build around the Edwards, May and Cleary nucleus.

There is a frantic quality to Penrith’s attack, especially in the attacking quarter, and they can struggle to play direct and stick to their structures.

There is a tremendous amount of talent at Penrith, but getting them all moving in the right direction and playing to a plan without stifling their pure footballing instincts is the challenge.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE SEASON

Winning 11 of 13 matches from Round 10 to Round 24 produced plenty of highlights, including twin last-gasp wins over Canberra, but it’s tough to look past the qualifying final victory over Manly. Seven days after being beaten 28-12 by the Sea Eagles, Penrith got up 22-10 in a decidedly spicy encounter, which included a running battle between Dylan Walker and the entirety of western Sydney.

LOWLIGHT OF THE SEASON

Everything in the first 10 weeks. A 28-2 belting by Cronulla at home in Round 7 was matched only perhaps by a 42-10 drubbing by the Dragons in the season opener and a 28-6 mauling by Melbourne in Round 5. The latter match would have been particularly discouraging, as it seemed to firmly shut the door on any hopes Penrith may have had of cutting it with the best in the competition.

BIG NAME RECRUITS

Penrith have no new recruits for next season.

BIG NAME LOSSES

Sitaleki Akauola (Warrington), Samisoni Langi (Leigh Centurions)

WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT YEAR

BEST POSSIBLE SCENARIO

Cleary finds another gear, the roster becomes more settled, Bryce Cartwright gets right back to his best and Penrith become an attacking juggernaut, running teams ragged as they storm into the top four and chase their first grand final win since 2003.

WORST POSSIBLE SCENARIO

The current chopping and changing continues with numerous players shipped out either before the season begins or during the season itself. The talent of the Panthers stops them from cratering completely but they remain fractured and somewhat aimless and while a new crop of youngsters comes through a chance at a premiership is again pushed down the road so they can develop.

COACH SAFETY RATING

Given Anthony Griffin re-signed until the end of 2020 I think it’s safe to say he’s pretty safe.

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