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Premiership pretenders or contenders... will Penrith finally fulfil their potential? Andrew Jackson previews the Penrith Panthers' 2018 campaign.
Despite promising so much in the season prior, the 2017 season saw the Penrith Panthers fail to cement themselves as true premiership contenders. Their seventh-place finish at the end of the regular season was miraculous given their horror start to the year, with Anthony Griffin's side managing just two wins from their first nine games. Fortunately for Griffin, the Panthers would go on to win 11 of their next 15 games to secure a position in the 2017 Finals Series. Penrith's 13-6 Semi-Final loss to Brisbane saw the Panthers bow out in strikingly similar fashion to their 2016 defeat at the hands of the Canberra Raiders.
The disappointment was somewhat slighter this time given that after Round Nine few Penrith fans even imagined a Top Eight finish was possible. Despite this, the Panthers had still made little progress from the previous year, and at points in 2017, appeared to be going backwards in their quest for premiership glory.
Supporters from the Foot of the Mountains will be hoping that the purchase of two-time premiership winner James Maloney is enough to transform their team into legitimate title challengers in 2018. If the former Shark is unable to do so, however, Penrith fans will lament the cost of his signing given the wealth of players released to accommodate Maloney's arrival (Leilani Latu Matt Moylan, Mitch Rein, Peta Hiku, Sitaleki Akauola).
The Panthers have always had a well-rounded roster. Yet, the purchase of Maloney may be just what is needed to deliver Penrith their premiership since 2003. Nathan Cleary is arguably the most promising young halfback in the game and experienced a breakout 2017. However, Cleary's development has still been somewhat hindered by the lack of a defined halves partner. In his 41 NRL games, Cleary has already had five halves partners (Bryce Cartwright, Jamie Soward, Matt Moylan, Te Maire Martin and Tyrone May). Maloney should provide Cleary with the stability necessary to take his game to the next level.
The NSW Blues five-eighth brings a wealth of experience and game management to the Penrith outfit and should perfectly complement the impressive Cleary. Penrith's spine of Dylan Edwards, Maloney, Cleary and Peter Wallace perfectly captures the essence of their squad - a blend of both experience and youth. With one of the more exciting and balanced rosters in the competition, the Panthers should be challenging for a premiership in 2018.
Despite the potential of their roster, the Panthers will never be a genuine premiership threat if they do not fix up their errors and missed tackles. Griffin's men missed the most tackles on average in the competition last year (32.9) and averaged the fourth-most errors (11.0). Until these key faults are resolved, Penrith will continue to struggle to compete with the elite teams of the competition. An inability to convert field position into points also plagued Penrith's 2017 campaign. On a number of occasions, most notably in their 28-2 loss to Cronulla, the Panthers were presented with numerous sets of six close to the opposition try line. However, a lack of communication and direction saw Penrith struggle to take their chances. Coach Griffin will be hoping that Maloney's arrival rectifies this problem.
A player who did not live up to expectations in 2017 was high-profile recruit James Tamou. Tamou averaged a solid 102 running metres per game, a significant reduction from the 135 metres a game he was averaging at the Cowboys in 2015/2016. Reagan Campbell-Gillard established himself as Penrith's best forward last year and now it is Tamou's turn to step up and match RCG's energy and intensity up front to justify his lofty price tag.
The Panthers have an impressive back up for experienced 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 also rewarded for his stellar 2017 with the Under 20's Player of the Year award for the Penrith club on their presentation night. If Wallace succumbs to injury in 2017, look out for a possible debut off the bench from Egan.
Gains | Tyrone Phillips (Bulldogs), James Maloney (Sharks)
Losses | Sitaleki Akauola (Warrington), Darren Nicholls (Dragons), Matt Moylan (Sharks), Mitch Rein, Leilani Latu & Bryce Cartwright (Titans) | 2017 Mid-Season Zach Dockar-Clay (Hull KR), Peta Hiku (Warriors via Warrington), Samisoni Langi (Leigh), Malakai Watene-Zelezniak (Wests Tigers), Te Maire Martin (Cowboys)