2004 was a completely new challenge for 2003 premiers Penrith. After riding on a wave of confidence and unstoppable momentum to win last season?s Minor premiership and Grand Final, the Panthers were marked men in 2004 as each club tried to knock the premiers off.

The Panthers were quickly made aware of how tough a task defending a premiership would be. After losing to Bradford 4-22 in the World Club Challenge, the Panthers suffered a first up loss to the Newcastle Knights in the NRL season opener. The intensity of the Knights defence that night was a warning that the rest of the NRL was after Penrith?s premiership.

Penrith responded well to win their next four matches. They defied ?expert? predictions to again beat the Sydney Roosters at Telstra Stadium, winning the Grand Final Replay 22-6. The club?s good fortune with injuries remained and it appeared as though they would be frontrunners again.

However, the John Lang coached outfit then hit some hurdles. They were well beaten by a fired up St.George-Illawarra Dragons team in Round 6. Then with six players backing up from the Anzac Test, they went down to Brisbane by 18 points in Round 7.

After failing to gain recognition by representative selectors for most of 2003, the Panthers were one of the more heavily represented clubs in 2004. Craig Gower, Trent Waterhouse, Luke Lewis and Luke Rooney appeared for New South Wales, while Rhys Wesser and Ben Ross made their debuts for Queensland.

Penrith had performed steadily enough to hold down 3rd position on the table after 12 rounds, but injuries and representative commitments soon took their toll. A knee injury to ?captain courageous? Craig Gower led to an eight match absence. The Panthers also lost five eighth Preston Campbell and veteran centre Ryan Girdler for extended periods mid-season. The absence of these key players plus their origin stars forced Amos Roberts into the five eighth role. Roberts had been scoring tries at a prolific rate on the wing but struggled to fill the playmaking role on a consistent basis.

The Panthers lost touch with the likes of the Bulldogs, Roosters & Broncos. They suffered some embarrassing losses, none more so than in a two week nightmare run when an understrength Penrith outfit were thunderstruck by Melbourne 14-66. This was followed by an inept showing against eventual wooden spooners South Sydney in which the Panthers made 22 handling errors.

While Penrith never quite regained their 2003 consistency, they showed what they are capable of when at their best and with the likes of Preston Campbell, Craig Gower and Luke Priddis all firing at Penrith Stadium. The club charged towards a home semi final by mauling several opponents at home in the latter rounds. Their 72-12 trouncing of Manly in Round 22 set a new record for the club?s biggest win. Despite their poor form away from home, including 20-46 and 12-44 humblings to the Bulldogs and Roosters respectively, Penrith?s home form was enough to give them a decent shot of defending their title.

They opened the finals with the intent of doing exactly that, with a four try blitz of St.George-Illawarra in the first 17 minutes of their home semi final. While the Dragons fought back strongly, Penrith prevailed 31-30 in a thrilling match. The Panthers were fortunate enough to get a week off and were only one game away from another decider.

Penrith remained on track for a Grand Final berth at halftime in the Preliminary Final against the Bulldogs at Aussie Stadium. They led 8-4 before fullback Rhys Wesser was sin binned for a professional foul. The Bulldogs took advantage of the numerical advantage by scoring two tries in his absence. Penrith failed to take their opportunities and simply couldn?t contend with the powerful forward roll on and superior impact of the Bulldogs bench.

BEST PERFORMANCE: Despite their inconsistency, the Panthers were a great side to watch on a good day and considering the opposition, the Panthers finest win of 2004 was their 40-29 win over the Bulldogs in Round 12. Already missing Gower through injury and with Campbell and Girdler failing to finish the game, the versatile Amos Roberts played a starring role on the back of a powerful second half by Penrith?s big forward pack. It was a great victory considering they were down 25-18 at halftime and were missing their playmakers.

PREDICTION FOR 2005: Penrith will miss the experience and class of retiring centre Ryan Girdler, who despite his injury problems over the last couple of years, was a record breaking pointscorer in his twelve seasons at the foot of the mountains. They?ll also miss no nonsense prop Martin Lang, who is also calling it quits. Amos Roberts came and went after scoring 23 tries, joining the Roosters who could afford to pay him his worth. The only signing of note is ex Sharks centre Paul Franze, who could form a potent partnership with Luke Lewis in the centres. The Panthers still have a squad filled with talented young players, many of whom now have representative experience. The biggest problem still appears to be a lack of depth, as well as a defensive structure which still leaks too many points. I expect the Panthers to be in the top four to six again, but they?ll need to improve their defensive intensity to be a chance of winning next year?s premiership.

Match Records 2004

ROUND OPPONENT VENUE RESULT SCORE 1 Newcastle Knights Penrith Stadium LOSS 14-20 2 Canberra Raiders Canberra Stadium WIN 34-18 3 New Zealand Warriors Ericsson Stadium WIN 42-22 4 Sydney Roosters Telstra Stadium WIN 22-6 5 Melbourne Storm Penrith Stadium WIN 30-26 6 St.George-Illawarra Dragons WIN Stadium LOSS 18-44 7 Brisbane Broncos Suncorp Stadium LOSS 14-32 8 Wests Tigers Penrith Stadium WIN 22-20 9 South Sydney Rabbitohs Penrith Stadium WIN 38-4 10 BYE

11 North Queensland Cowboys Dairy Farmers Stadium WIN 22-18 12 Bulldogs Penrith Stadium WIN 40-29 13 Manly Sea Eagles Brookvale Oval LOSS 12-20 14 St.George-Illawarra Dragons Penrith Stadium LOSS 8-28 15 Cronulla Sharks Toyota Park WIN 32-12 16 Parramatta Eels Penrith Stadium WIN 26-16 17 Melbourne Storm Olympic Park LOSS 14-66 18 South Sydney Rabbitohs Aussie Stadium LOSS 6-30 19 Canberra Raiders Penrith Stadium WIN 42-8 20 BYE

21 Bulldogs Telstra Stadium LOSS 20-46 22 Manly Sea Eagles Penrith Stadium WIN 72-12 23 Sydney Roosters Aussie Stadium LOSS 12-44 24 North Queensland Cowboys Penrith Stadium WIN 56-6 25 Parramatta Eels Parramatta Stadium WIN 30-20 26 Brisbane Broncos Penrith Stadium WIN 46-20 Qualifying Final St.George-Illawarra Dragons Penrith Stadium WIN 31-30 Preliminary Final Bulldogs Aussie Stadium LOSS 14-30

16 WINS, 10 LOSSES, FOR: 717 AGAINST: 627 POSITION: Preliminary Finalists, 4th in Minor Premiership

Penrith Panthers ? 2005 Player Movement

Gains: Brad McMillan (Forbes), Dylan Crawley (Coonabarabran), Michael Gordon (Tweed Heads, 2yrs), Paul Franze (Sharks, 1yr)

Losses: Martin Lang (Retirement), Ryan Girdler (Retirement), Jesse Royal (Knights, 2yrs), Richard Fa?aoso (Roosters, 2yrs), Amos Roberts (Roosters, 4yrs), Paul Whatuira (Tigers, 3yrs), Luke Harlen (Sharks), Aaron Barba (Toowoomba QLD Cup, 3yrs), Daniel Russell (Released)

By Michael Allen ? Freelance Journalist