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Half way through the season and we have the Penrith Panthers leading the competition. Who would have thought this was possible? I had high expectations for the boys from the foot of the mountains at the start of the season and I expected them to finish the year in the top eight. What I didn't expect is that they would be doing so well so quickly. Looking at their draw for the remainder of the season I expect them to qualify around fourth or fifth but do they have what it takes to challenge for the premiership come September?
Eight games into the season and Penrith were sitting on four wins, following a win, loss, win, loss pattern from round one. A fifty percent winning ratio is nothing to write home about and no one was really mentioning them. Fast forward to just over a month later and four wins on the trot (and a bye) has catapulted them to the top of the ladder. While this is a very impressive result I believe it can be very deceiving. This idea came to me when thinking of the Panthers recent opponents. They seem to be playing Canberra, Newcastle or the Gold Coast every week and not too many top of the table blockbusters.
Analyse the draw a bit more and you can see that Penrith have avoided games against the competition heavyweights. For arguments sake I have identified five teams as being the cream of the crop due to their strong rosters and ability to continue to threaten for the premiership. They are last years top four (Melbourne, Manly, Souths and the Roosters) as well as the Bulldogs. Of these five teams Penrith have only gone against them three times this year for a win and two losses. They went down to the Storm in round two before beating the Bulldogs the following week (both in nail biters) and were easily accounted for by Souths in round 6. Compare this to the two games each they have played against Canberra and Newcastle (for four wins) and one game against Cronulla, which they lost.
I'm not saying the Penrith cant beat the good teams, just that they are yet to prove so. They don't get much of a chance to until late in the season either as they only have the Roosters (round 19), Bulldogs (21), Melbourne (24) and Manly (25) in the back half of the draw. The game against the Storm will be a big one in particular, as the Storm should be pushing to improve their position on the ladder after a tough origin period. 2010 saw the Panthers qualify for the finals in second place before being bundled out after two consecutive losses. They will be hoping to put up more of a fight this time around.
Gus Gould has done a great job at the foot of the mountains, cleaning out the club and turning them into finals contenders once again. They have recruited excellently bringing in the right amount of experience (Kite, Soward and Wallace) with youth (Segeyaro, Peachey, Whare and Idris) over the last couple of years. This is complemented with the emergence of several local juniors, highlighted by Moylan and Cartwright.
This is Gould's third year of involvement with Penrith and I'm starting to believe that his five year plan may be spot on. This season may just prove to be a couple of years too soon.