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Twelve months ago we saw history made in the USA with the New Orleans
Saints winning the Super Bowl, we still knew of Lebron James as that
good guy from Cleveland and the NRL was still in the midst of
Hayne-mania. But like most years, once again, the critics were writing
off the Penrith Panthers team as perennial underachievers and one of
the favourites for the wooden spoon.
2010, however, was a banner year for the maligned Panthers performing well above expectations while carrying the unwanted and undeserved tag of pretenders throughout their successful second placed regular season. While many will point to the Panthers exit from the finals as justification for that moniker, the mounting injury toll was just too much for the young Panthers.
That finals experience in particular will fuel the fire for 2011. The players are notably hungry to improve on their 2010 season and the young players now have a successful campaign under their belt and know what it takes to be successful. The Panthers season will be contingent on the young core of Lachlan Coote, Michael Jennings, Michael Gordon, Tim Grant and Sam McKendry to improve even further on their 2010 season to elevate the team to greater heights.
Despite the optimism of the 2011 season there are some negatives that go with a successful 2010 season and that is dealing with the salary cap. For much of the 2010 season the majority of the Panthers squad was off-contract and while the likes of Grant, McKendry, Kingston, Gordon and Jennings were successfully retained, the Panthers lost game-winning backrower Frank Pritchard to the Bulldogs and talented young five-eight Wade Graham to the Sharks.
In order to replace outgoing players the Panthers are hoping a couple of journeyman will step up to the plate and realise their potential at their new clubs, along with a few exciting young prospects. The Panthers signed Arana Tuamata from the Cowboys to ensure he sets a record for most clubs by one player along with signing maligned backrower Yileen Gordon. The Panthers also secured the services of two exciting young players in Backrower Brendon Gibb (Qld Cup) and livewire hooker Nafe Seluini (Warriors Under 20's player of the year). The Panthers will be hoping these players will contribute on a regular basis to negate the loss of Pritchard and Graham.
The Panthers will go into 2011 with the majority of their team in place. The backs will remain unchanged from the back end of the year with the electric Lachlan Coote back from his Oesteo Pubis injury while gamebreakers Michael Jennings and Michael Gordon will again add their flair and excitement to the game.
In the halves there is stability with the kicking wizard Luke Walsh who led the league in assists last season, while Travis Burns will again provide the spark in defense and niggle at opposition players. The halves will have the duty in 2011 to provide an additional dimension to the Panthers attack other than reliance on kicks. While this fact was overblown last year, the Panthers must incorporate their exciting backline more in order to add unpredictability and promote an attacking brand of rugby league that they are more than capable of producing.
The Panthers strength, like in previous seasons, lies in their forward pack led by stalwarts Petero Civoniceva, Trent Waterhouse and Dally M Lock of the Year Luke Lewis. The Panthers pack incorporates a mix of youth and experience that will match any in the NRL. While the loss of Frank Pritchard reduces the impact of the Panthers pack, young guns like Grant and McKendry lifted another level last year and indications are they have once again in preparation for 2011. Alongside dependable players in Matthew Bell and Nathan Smith the Panthers pack will once again be a force.
2011 is a year where the Panthers once again go in with the labels of pretenders. Many pundits have put the Panthers 2010 season down to a fluke, once again predicting the Panthers to fall out of top 8 and be in contention for the Wooden Spoon. If the Panthers are to prove that 2010 was not a fluke, then Matthew Elliott and his mountain men must step up and deliver again.
Player To Watch - Sam McKendry
Much has been made of the loss of the Panthers Kiwi International Frank Pritchard. While that loss is felt at the foot of the mountains, it is one Kiwi International who emerged in 2010 who is the player to watch for 2011. In 2010 Sam McKendry put the word realised next to the word potential which had been following him for many years. It was a benchmark year for McKendry and he'll be looking to secure his place as one of the best young props in the game and most of all his spot in the Kiwi International team. A bulldozing prop with great footwork and a great offload, while McKendry has realised some of his potential in 2010, he is just scratching the surface of what he is capable of.
Rookie To Watch - Jesse Sene Lefao
Jesse Sene Lefao has risen through the ranks at the Panthers to emerge as the rookie to watch for the 2011 season. Last year he was moulding his craft in the NSW Cup after being a dominant player in the Toyota Cup in the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Jesse is a versatile player capable of player centre or backrow with a silky set of skills along with bone-crushing defense. In 2011 Jesse will be looking to take the opportunity to emerge into the First Grade squad as a dynamic playmaking backrow replacement for Frank Pritchard. His trial form for the Panthers has shown that Jesse is maturing as a football player and his opportunity may not be too far away to play in the NRL for the Penrith Panthers.
Gains: Yileen Gordon (Canterbury-Bankstown), Arana Taumata (North Queensland Cowboys), Coedi Towney (The Entrance - Bundaberg Red Cup), Dayne Weston (North Queensland Cowboys), Michael Worrincy (Bradford Bulls - Super League), Nafe Seluini (Warriors), Brendon Gibb (Norths Devils - Queensland Cup), Junior Paulo (St George Illawarra)
Losses: Wade Graham (Cronulla), Frank Pritchard (Canterbury-Bankstown), Gavin Cooper (North Queensland Cowboys), Josh Bateman (North Queensland Cowboys), Maurice Blair (Melbourne Storm), Daniel Penese (St George Illawarra)
1. Lachlan Coote, 2. Sandor Earl, 3. Michael Jennings, 4. Brad Tighe, 5. Michael Gordon, 6. Travis Burns, 7. Luke Walsh, 8. Petero Civoniceva, 9. Kevin Kingston, 10. Tim Grant, 11. Nathan Smith, 12. Trent Waterhouse, 13. Luke Lewis
Interchange: 14. Sam McKendry, 15. Matthew Bell, 16. Yileen Gordon, 17. Nafe Seluini