2018 PREVIEW 🔍 Our 16th and final #NRL look at each club is in. Andrew Ferguson (hopefully with mini...
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Panthers fail to take next step towards becoming premiership contenders
The Panthers were highly fancied by many pundits to take out the Provan-Summons trophy this year. After bowing out in Week Two of the finals in the previous year, it was believed that a full off-season would allow Penrith's young stars enough time to polish their skills and deliver a possible premiership to the Western heartland for the first time since 2003. The acquisition of Cowboy James Tamou was also expected to give the Panthers much needed experience and leadership. In the end, 2017 was viewed as the year that the likes of Nathan Cleary, Te Maire Martin and Matt Moylan would flourish and the talented Panthers would finally fulfill their potential.
Yet, by the completion of the season, even more question marks loom over Anthony Griffin's men. Penrith's sixth-place finish was miraculous given their diabolical 2-9 start to the year. However, an air of disappointment still lingered as at times, it appeared as if the Panthers were relying upon individual brilliance over actual structured attack to emerge victorious. Look no further than Penrith's 24-20 win over Canberra in Bathurst, in which a late Matt Moylan masterclass salvaged what was otherwise another frustrating performance of ineffective attack in the opposition twenty.
Ultimately, the Panthers finished with 13 victories for the season with off-field issues surrounding Moylan and Bryce Cartwright and Martin's mid-season move to the Cowboys leaving Penrith fans uncertain heading into the 2018 season. The future of coach Anthony Griffin, however, is anything but uncertain, with the former Brisbane mentor rewarded for Penrith's strong finish to the year with a three-year contract extension. Griffin is the first coach to take the Panthers to back-to-back finals since 2003-2004.
It was panning out as an embarrassing Saturday afternoon out for this writer, who had mistakenly invited 10 of his friends to a Penrith game only to witness his side concede 28 points in the first half. Yet, the Panthers would put on a masterclass in the second half, scoring 30 unanswered points and running away 36-28 winners over the Warriors. Previously to the Round 10 clash, the Panthers had won just two of their first nine games. However, following that match, Griffin's side went on to win 11 of their next 15 to cement an unlikely position within the Top Eight.
The Panthers started the season slow and also had a habit of being complacent in the opening stages of games. Fortunately, Penrith were the best finishers in the competition, conceding just seven points in the final 20 minutes of their last games of the season. Penrith's depth was yet again another shining light for the club as the rise of rookies Dylan Edwards and Tyrone May as well as the availability of the experienced Mitch Rein offset injuries to key players such as Moylan, Cartwright and Peter Wallace.
As alluded to earlier, Penrith's key issue heading into the off-season is their attack within the opposition twenty-metre line. The Panthers had no problems gaining territory throughout the season, yet once near the try line, Griffin's men appeared rudderless. While there are several players in the Penrith outfit who have the ability to score miraculous tries out of nothing, the Panthers will only be premiership threats when they discover a balance between their current style of play and the clinical qualities sides like Melbourne are known for. As they did last year, Penrith's downfall was also their inability to do the fundamental things right - most notably missing the most tackles on average in the competition (36.4) and making the third-most errors (10.9).
Undoubtedly Reagan Campbell-Gillard experienced a breakout year in 2017. Campbell-Gillard's fearless runs were inspirational for the Panthers with the Prop averaging 171 running metres in the final ten rounds of the competition. Nathan Cleary also disproved the second-year syndrome with a highly impressive 2017 campaign. Cleary had a consistently strong kicking game, with his spiraling bombs proving too much for a number of the competition's best fullbacks. Meanwhile, his willingness to take on the line added variety to his attack and was on full show when Cleary scored three tries, set up two and broke the line twice in a perfect display against the Warriors in Round 19. Cleary's achievements were recognised when he was announced the youngest-ever player in the competition's history to score over 200 points in a season. The ever-consistent Isaah Yeo also deserves credit for a highly committed 2017 campaign.
The Panthers have a talented back up to regular hooker Peter Wallace in the versatile Sione Katoa. However, under-20's rake Wayde Egan may be even more promising a prospect. Egan is not only a strong defender but also an attacking threat, amassing 18 tries, 15 try-assists and 20 line breaks in a stunning season. Egan was rewarded for his work with the Under 20's Player of the Year award for the Penrith club on their presentation night.
The success of Penrith's depth was on full display this year.
In the Holden Cup, coach David Tangata-Toa described 2017 as a rebuilding year at the start of the season due to the loss of several players to NSW Cup. However, despite this, Penrith's abundant nursery continued to deliver, with the Under 20's mountain men finishing their campaign just one game shy of the Grand Final.
Meanwhile, in the NSW Intrust Super Premiership, led by new Titans head coach Garth Brennan, the Panthers finished Premiers after defeating Wyong and went on to claim the State Championship with a 42-18 defeat of the PNG Hunters.
It is well and truly time Penrith move away from being a team of just potential. Anthony Griffin should have a relatively settled squad for next year with Matt Moylan set to play on at Penrith in 2018. However, the focus must be on their lack of any real plan near the opposition line. If this can be rectified, the Panthers should improve in 2018. If not, a stunning fall from grace may loom seeing the wealth of competition for spots in next year's Top Eight.