Anthony Griffin’s team of black cats are once again tipped to purr, but with an overabundance of quality outside backs some might be lapping from a different bowl before the season is out.
A trimmed down Waqa Blake and everywhere-man Tyrone Peachey made the centre positions their own in 2016 following knee injuries to first choice pair Dean Whare and Peta Hiku.
The unlikely duo was prominent in Penrith’s finals charge, at times almost unstoppable in combination with international wingers Josh Mansour and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.
Six into four still doesn’t go, but for now injury has again decided which two miss out.
Mansour (ACL) will miss the bulk of 2017 while Watene-Zelezniak (foot) is due back in Round 3.
Many predict Kiwi internationals Whare and Hiku to start the season in the centres, but after Penrith’s final trial against Parramatta, Griffin was quick to point out the centre spots were Peachey and Blake’s to lose.
Besides, the new halves combination of Te Maire Martin and Nathan Cleary stands to benefit from stability out wide.
Blake developed into a class right centre last season and earned a two year contract extension until end of 2019 while Peachey will always be Griffin’s joker in the pack.
Up until the second half of last season, the former Shark happily roamed without title before calling left-centre home in his final 15 appearances.
Contracted for a further three seasons, Peachey is one of the most gifted players in the competition meaning only one person should be pushing for his inclusion on the bench – and that’s the opposition coach.
Heading into the season opener, it looks as though Whare and Hiku will earn their stripes from the wing before one eventually makes way for the speedy boots of Watene-Zelezniak.
Regularly naming high profile stars in the NSW Cup is one sure way to ignite relocation rumours.
No club has park footy in mind when paying Test talent top-dollar and with 15 and nine Tests respectively, both Whare and Hiku will be desperate to remain in the top 17.
Whare needs an open throttle from Round 1.With only 14 top-grade appearances since 2014, a stint in the seconds will do little for the 27 year-old’s contract prospects or market value beyond this season.
Hiku is steady in any backline position and is contracted until the end of 2018 but won’t take anything for granted having already been forced from Manly shortly before the 2016 season.
The long term branding of Peachey has inadvertently left Penrith with a lopsided playing roster which along with a swag of rising talent means several high profile names could be forced out.
Griffin made a name for himself at the Broncos with an ability to identify and transition U20s players to the NRL.
One thing’s for certain, Griffin won’t shy from the big call.
Last year the coach didn’t hesitate to move Elijah Taylor sideways after identifying an oversupply of forwards. The 10-Test Kiwi was relegated to second grade before striking a deal with the Tigers for the remainder of the year.
Taylor lost out to Griffin’s preference for energetic and aggressive forward play in a blueprint that may he may repeat in the assessment of backline stocks throughout 2017.
Talk of Mansour’s return only complicates the issue meaning two representative backs face demotion that could eventually see them forced elsewhere by the club or of their own accord.
Teams short on quality outside backs like Newcastle, Manly and the Dragons should already be sniffing about with guarantees of NRL permanence for the likes of the off contract Whare and the reliable Hiku.
All the Panthers need is a change of fortune on the injury front so their stocks can be re-assessed in a bang for buck analysis.
And with Griffin’s alliance to youth, pace and power, it’ll come as no surprise to see another big name Panther or two shown the door before the June 30 transfer deadline.