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by Stew Moses
The Penrith Panthers debut in the NSW Cup for 2014 having taken back control of their second tier team from feeder club, Windsor Wolves & will start the season with plenty of optimism albeit with the pressure of being installed as NSW Cup premiership favourites by betting agencies. Here’s my take on what has changed on & off the field that supports the view that Penrith are one of the main contenders for the title in 2014.
On Field Changes
In preparation for their debut in the NSW Cup for the 2014 season, the Panthers recruitment drive coupled with the emergence of talent from their Holden Cup premiership side has meant that for some in the 2013 NSW Cup squad, the time had come to seek opportunities elsewhere. Those departures include:
Neccrom Areaiiti (North Sydney Bears); Blake Austin (Wests Tigers); Josh Butfield (St Marys A Grade); Cameron Ciraldo (Retired); Geoff Daniela (Released); Alan Eisenhuth (St Marys A Grade); Krys Freeman (Norths Devils); Danny Galea (Windes); Sam Hollis (Balmain Tigers); Kane Morgan (North Sydney Bears); Kyle O’Donnell (Canberra); Mosese Pangai (Canberra); Travis Robinson (Melbourne); Jake Shearer (Blacktown Workers); Blake South (North Sydney Bears); Dayne Weston (Melbourne)
However in their place includes the following exciting new signings who could see action in the NSW Cup for Penrith:
Leilani Latu (Canterbury); Kevin Naiqama (Newcastle); Tyrone Peachey (Cronulla); Will Smith (Newcastle) & Shaun Spence (Wests Tigers)
There are plenty of positives for Panthers fans with the nucleus of last year’s squad likely to be strengthened by the likes of last year’s first graders all likely to spend time in NSW Cup this year in Isaac John, Ryan Simpkins, Matt Robinson & James Roberts. Competition for spots in the NSW Cup is further intensified when you consider Holden Cup premiership players Kieran Moss, George Jennings, Daniel Foster & Reagan Campbell-Gillard who played NSW Cup with the Wolves last year are now fully available for NSW Cup duties this year while Bryce Cartwright, Isaah Yeo, Kierran Moseley, Chris Smith, Josh Tangitau & Eddie Aiono who all played in the NSW Cup last season are still eligible for Holden Cup.
Panther fans will also be keenly watching to see how two of last year’s stars of the Windsor Wolves NSW Cup squad – Eto Nabuli & Sam Anderson back up in their second season for the club. The Flying Fijian, Nabuli scored an incredible 29 tries from just 26 appearances in his debut season of rugby league after being recruited from obscurity by Brad Fittler & Andrew Johns in a Fijian hotel & was duly selected in the NSW Cup team of the year. Sam Anderson’s transition from the Newcastle Knights was a decision rewarded with a NRL debut with the Penrith Panthers, coupled with selection in both the NSW Residents squad & NSW Cup team of the year as well as named Windsor Wolves’ NSW Cup Player of the Year.
Throw in the likes of Wes Naiqama, Tom Eisenhuth, Nathan Smith, Vaipuna Tia Kilifi, Luke Capewell, Anthony Cherrington, Tom Humble, Liam Ayoub, Matt Eisenhuth are back again in 2014, it’s not hard to see why the bookmakers have installed the Panthers as the team to beat in 2014 & go one better then last year’s grand final appearance.
Next big thing
Expect the prodigiously talented fullback Holden Cup, Dallin Watene-Zellezniak to make his NSW Cup debut in 2014. Billed as the next big thing to hit the NRL & having shunned Junior Kangaroos selection for a Junior Kiwis jersey in 2013, Dallin has already featured in the NSW Cup trials & made plenty of good judges sit up & take notice of his blistering speed in scoring three tries against the hapless Wyong Roos.
In addition to Dallin, I also expect last year’s Holden Cup premiers to also provide NSW Cup opportunities for half Sam Scarlett, centre Waqa Blake & prop Andy Saunders in season 2014.
The pre-season trials & the Auckland nines tournament haven’t been kind to the Panthers particularly at NSW Cup level. It’s fortunate that the Panthers have the depth to cover injuries considering the likes of Ethan Cook (ACL – season), Tom Humble, George Jennings, Vaipuna Tia Kilifi, Wes Naiqama, Kieran Moss, Eto Nabuli, James Roberts, Anthony Cherrington, Luke Capewell, Matt Eisenhuth & Pat Hollis are unavailable for Round 1 & beyond. Put this down partly to the masterstroke hatched by the Panthers brain trust in early 2013 that saw no less than 12 players from the Holden Cup squad debut in NSW Cup under the tutelage of their Holden Cup coach, many of whom are still eligible for Holden Cup in 2014.
Off field roster changes
The big off field change has been the Penrith Panthers taking back control of their NSW Cup side from former feeder club, Windsor Wolves. Grand Final coach Guy Missio has been replaced by Holden Cup premiership winning coach Garth Brennan, who has brought with him his assistant coach from the Holden Cup team, David Tangata Toa. Although this is Garth’s first season starting in the NSW Cup as a head coach, Garth did take over from Guy Missio part way through the 2013 season before handing back the reins to Guy in order to finish the job of winning the Holden Cup with Penrith.
NSW Cup Changes
With Penrith back in control expect more games to be played at NRL grounds in 2014. Penrith will play 10 games in total on NRL game days in 2014 – 5 each at home & away & will feature on at least 8 Fox Sports Live broadcasts as well. Panther fans are reminded that Hawkesbury Radio 89.9FM will be covering most of the NSW Cup games featuring Penrith in 2014.
Penrith will kick off the season with a Round 1 blockbuster against prelim finalists from last year, Newcastle, whom were defeated in that final by the Windsor Wolves hence there will be plenty of rivalry in this game particularly with Will Smith & Kevin Naiqama joining the likes of Sam Anderson in playing their ex-team mates. No surprise this game forms part of a 3 game NRL feature at Sportingbet Stadium & will be televised by Fox Sports.
Penrith have more favourable byes in 2014 with byes in Round 7 & 23.
The Panthers will also feature at the following NRL Games – R3 v Canterbury (H - televised), R4 v Wentworthville (A – televised), R5 v Mounties (H), R8 v Cronulla (A – televised), R14 v Illawarra (H - televised) R16 v NZ Warriors (A – televised), R17 v Wests Tigers (A), R19 v Newtown (A – televised), R20 v Cronulla (H – televised).
Penrith also play on the NRL representative weekend in a NSW Cup double header v NZ Warriors at Sportingbet Stadium, which will also feature the Under 20’s Origin and Samoa v Fiji matches & finally on weekends where the Panthers NRL side have the bye, the NSW Cup side will be playing – R11 v Manly (A) & R15 v North Sydney (A).