The Penrith Panthers have made the second week of the finals three years in a row, and 2019 under a new coach has to be the time for the club to take it to the next level.
Some off-field turmoil has enveloped the club in the last week or so and that’s certainly not the best way to prepare for the season, but with the names released so far, there would be hopes from outside the camp that it won’t affect those inside the camp too greatly.
Despite all that, the Panthers are a team with a stack of youth throughout, but also enough experience that they should be able to get through the season just fine.
Ivan Cleary comes in as coach, and that in itself is an interesting discussion point. He has had success, and is rated as a good coach, but this is a team he needs to take the journey at some point in the next two or three years, more to prove himself than anything else.
Of course, he also has the dynamic of coaching his son, which will be an interesting one to follow throughout the year.
Still, this Penrith side are likely to play an exciting, high-pace brand of footy with plenty of depth, and they should be well and truly a top eight side, unless something goes badly wrong.
Colours: Black, red, yellow, white
Home grounds: Panthers Stadium, Penrith
Minor premierships: 2
Best finish in last five years: 2014 – fourth place, third week of finals
2018 finish: 5th place – second week of finals
Coach: Ivan Cleary
Captain: James Maloney
James Maloney (c), Caleb Aekins, Waqa Blake, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Jed Cartwright, Nathan Cleary, Dylan Edwards, Wayde Egan, Kaide Ellis, James Fisher-Harris, Tyrrell Fuimaono, Tim Grant, Jack Hetherington, Sione Katoa, Viliame Kikau, Moses Leota, Jarome Luai, Nick Lui-Toso, Josh Mansour, Liam Martin, Tyrone May, Sam McKendry, Tyrone Phillips, Paea Pua, Hame Sele, James Tamou, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, Dean Whare, Isaah Yeo
Ins: Tyrell Fuimaono (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Tim Grant (Wests Tigers), Hame Sele (St George Illawarra Dragons), Malakai Watene-Zelezniak (Wests Tigers)
Outs: Tim Browne (retired), Christian Crichton (Canterbury Bulldogs), Corey Harawira-Naera (Canterbury Bulldogs), Adam Keighran (New Zealand Warriors), Trent Merrin (Leeds Rhinos), Tyrone Peachey (Gold Coast Titans), Maika Sivo (Parramatta Eels), Corey Waddell (Manly Sea Eagles), Peter Wallace (retired)
The Panthers have lost a lot more than they have gained ahead of the 2019 season.
Tyrone Peachey is the biggest loss, with the utility, who filled every position over the last couple of years, leaving to join the Gold Coast.
His loss is almost matched by that of Corey Harawira-Naera, who burst onto the scene in stunning fashion as a second rower last year.
In the forwards, they also lose Trent Merrin, Tim Browne and Corey Waddell.
Winger Christian Crichton has left the club, leaving them with a little bit of a depth issue on the wing, while Maika Sivo has done the same.
Their biggest gain is young second rower Hame Sele, who was discarded by the Dragons, while Tim Grant adds plenty of experience to the ship.
Malakai Watene-Zelezniak joins Dallin at the club, while Tyrell Fuimaono is another good signing.
The Panthers have an exceptionally talented group of players to fill the spine.
After missing some of last year through injury after bursting onto the scene, Dylan Edwards will be back in the number one jersey.
The youngster, who has the potential to be one of the game’s best fullbacks in the years to come, has vision, defence and a great ability to run the footy.
The other lesser-known member of the spine, if you could term it as that, is Sione Katoa.
He will play hooker, and own that position with the retirement of Peter Wallace, although there could be an argument for Wayde Egan to play there. Regardless, neither are 80-minute players, and so will share the duties throughout 2019.
Both have plenty of spark, and on the back of a strong forward, will be incredibly dangerous around the ruck, especially when on fresher legs approaching halftime, or just after the main break.
The halves combination of course, will once again be James Maloney and Nathan Cleary. The pair had a stellar first half of 2019, capped with leading the Blues to an Origin success.
Following Origin though, they both tended to fall away a little bit, as the Panthers as a unit did, and that’s something which must be addressed if they want to be at the top end of town.
The Panthers backline depth looks good before the season starts, with Malakai Watene-Zelezniak and Tyrone Phillips both set to miss out on a gig in the top 17.
And that’s hardly a surprise when you look at the calibre of players named.
Josh Mansour had stamped his authority as one of the best wingers in the game before he spent a large chunk of last season on the sidelines.
Back at his best though, he is a damaging ball-runner, who gets sets off to a great start, and knows how to find the tryline.
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak will provide similar outputs on the other side of the park for Penrith, while the centres are also solid.
The centres are also strong. Dean Whare continues to develop as a player, while Waqa Blake has a mountain of potential, some of which, in attack at least, is beginning to be realised.
Blake needs to improve his defence, no question, but if he can do that, the Panthers have one of the stronger three-quarter lines in the competition.
The Panthers might be just a little bit short on forward depth if and when injuries strike, as they have done during the pre-season.
Villame Kikau, while not missing huge chunks of time, could be out for up to the first six weeks, and it leaves them a little vulnerable.
While the starting pack is strong – Reagan Campbell-Gillard and James Tamou both have Origin and international experience – while Isaah Yeo has turned into one of the most solid, consistent back rowers in the competition.
He almost does his job without anyone realising it’s being done, but poses a constant threat on the left edge.
James Fisher-Harris rounds out the pack, with the Kiwi lock putting in some strong performances last year.
There are plenty of Panthers players who will put their hands up for Origin selection this year. James Maloney is an almost certain starter for New South Wales, after being apart of the series-winning side last year.
Nathan Cleary is less certain, but could grab the Blues No.7 jersey again if Penrith are playing a strong brand of footy.
Josh Mansour missed out through injury, but will make a case for selection, while Reagan Campbell-Gillard is also likely to grab a start.
Likely best 17
1. Dylan Edwards
2. Josh Mansour
3. Dean Whare
4. Waqa Blake
5. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak
6. James Maloney
7. Nathan Cleary
8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard
9. Sione Katoa
10. James Tamou
11. Villame Kikau (injured through Round 7)
12. Isaah Yeo
13. James Fisher-Harris
14. Moses Leota
15. Wayde Egan
16. Kaide Ellis
17. Hame Sele
Can Ivan Cleary get the Panthers through the turmoil?
This is a huge year for Ivan Cleary. He has had previous stints at the Panthers, and at other clubs, guiding the Warriors to a stunning grand final in 2011.
Since then, his stints in charge of the Panthers and Tigers haven’t been all that good, although he never had the squads to really challenge for premierships.
This time around though, he does, and he needs to prove once and for all that he is a good coach.
The faith in him from Phil Gould by signing to a long-term contract was staggering, especially given Cleary has been booted from the club previously.
As mentioned, there are some off-field issues threatening to de-rail the Panthers. Ivan also has to coach son Nathan, while taking a youthful team through a tough season, with high expectations.
It’s going to be a challenge, but anything less than perfection won’t be tolerated by Penrith fans for long.
Can Nathan Cleary get the kicking game right?
One of the problems the Panthers faced at the back end of last year was some of the kicking options of Nathan Cleary.
There were times where he simply seemed to get into a rut, going back to the same option over and over again.
He needs to be able to mix it up, and while there are no problems with his effort and running game, if Penrith are to avoid the second half of the season fadeout again, Cleary needs to be helping Maloney steer the ship around the park.
Will the forwards provide enough?
As talked about enough, there are some depth issues in the Panthers forwards.
The loss of Kikau for the first six weeks of the season is huge. The second rower was dominating last year, and even playing partially injured during the finals, seemed to deliver huge performance after huge performance.
It’s up to Reagan Campbell-Gillard to lead this pack week in and week out. While the man known as RCG made his Origin debut last year, and injury curtailed his season early, he needs to go to the next level.
He is always good for a big run or tackle, but the stats suggest he needs to do it more consistently. 97 metres per game isn’t nearly good enough for a starting prop, but you get the feeling if he leads the way and sets the tempo, the rest will follow.
|1||Sun Mar 17||4:05pm||Parramatta Eels||Panthers Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|2||Sat Mar 23||5:30pm||Newcastle Knights||McDonald Jones Stadium||Fox|
|3||Sat Mar 30||7:35pm||Melbourne Storm||Carrington Park, Bathurst||Fox|
|4||Fri Apr 5||7:55pm||Wests Tigers||Panthers Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|5||Fri Apr 12||6pm||Gold Coast Titans||CBus Super Stadium||Fox|
|6||Thu Apr 18||7:50pm||Cronulla Sharks||Shark Park||Nine/Fox|
|7||Fri Apr 26||7:55pm||South Sydney Rabbitohs||Panthers Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|8||Sat May 4||3pm||Canberra Raiders||McDonalds Park, Wagga||Fox|
|9||Fri May 10||6pm||Wests Tigers||Suncorp Stadium||Fox|
|10||Fri May 17||6pm||New Zealand Warriors||Panthers Stadium||Fox|
|11||Thu May 23||7:50pm||Parramatta Eels||Western Sydney Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|12||Thu May 30||7:50pm||Manly Sea Eagles||Panthers Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|13||Sat Jun 9||4:05pm||Sydney Roosters||Panthers Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|14||Sat Jun 15||5:30pm||South Sydney Rabbitohs||ANZ Stadium||Fox|
|15||Sun Jun 30||2pm||New Zealand Warriors||MT Smart Stadium||Fox|
|17||Fri Jul 12||6pm||Gold Coast Titans||Panthers Stadium||Fox|
|18||Fri Jul 19||7:55pm||St George Illawarra Dragons||Panthers Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|19||Sun Jul 28||4:05pm||Canberra Raiders||Panthers Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|20||Sat Aug 3||5:30pm||Canterbury Bulldogs||Western Sydney Stadium||Fox|
|21||Thu Aug 9||7:55pm||Cronulla Sharks||Panthers Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|22||Fri Aug 16||7:55pm||Brisbane Broncos||Suncorp Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|23||Fri Aug 23||6pm||North Queensland Cowboys||1300 Smiles Stadium||Fox|
|24||Sat Aug 31||7:35pm||Sydney Roosters||Sydney Cricket Ground||Nine/Fox|
|25||Sun Sep 8||4:05pm||Newcastle Knights||Panthers Stadium||Nine/Fox|
The quick breakdown
Teams to play twice: Parramatta Eels, Newcastle Knights, Wests Tigers, Gold Coast Titans, Cronulla Sharks, South Sydney Rabbitohs, Canberra Raiders, New Zealand Warriors, Sydney Roosters
Best home run: Round 10 – Round 21 (seven out of 11)
Worst away run: Round 5 – Round 9 (four out of five)
Five-day turnarounds: 1
The Panthers have an amazing run through the middle third of the season, which should give them all sorts of momentum, and, if they are good enough, there will simply be no excuses, fixture-wise, for not finishing at the top end of town.
Between Rounds 10 and 21, they play seven out of their 11 games at home, but it’s where their away trips are which potentially makes this the friendliest part of any schedule for any club in 2019.
In 11 games with a bye in the middle, this is a club who will play two of those away games at Western Sydney against the Eels and Bulldogs, while they also have South Sydney at Homebush, with their only trip out of the state being one to Auckland.
That’s a stunningly good run, and no matter the sides they are playing, the Panthers are expected to be up and around the top four, so there are no excuses for not building momentum and racking up serious victories.
Of course, they do have some other rough away runs, but the worst of the lot sees them play the Sharks, Raiders, Tigers and Titans – all winnable games, at least, for now.
Their start to the season also featured the Eels, Knights, Tigers and Titans within the first five rounds, and while they also host the Storm in Bathurst, it’s one of the easier starts to the season floating around.
Their finish, featuring the Broncos, Cowboys, Roosters and Knights in successive weeks is far less simple, and again, momentum heading into that off their middle stretch is going to be crucial.
The Panthers are a team I’ve moved everywhere between second and eighth when I started putting this series together in December. What that tells you, first and foremost, is that they definitely should be in the top eight.
Not for a moment have I thought they would miss that.
However, with all that’s happening and still a lot of youth in the squad, plus a new coach, a couple of losses at the start of the season might be enough to just see them miss out on the top four.
Tomorrow, we head into the top four. Without wanting to give away what team it is, I’ll brace for the reaction, shall I?
16th – Parramatta Eels
15th – Canberra Raiders
14th – Manly Sea Eagles
13th – New Zealand Warriors
12th – Canterbury Bulldogs
11th – Cronulla Sharks
10th – Wests Tigers
9th – Gold Coast Titans
8th – Brisbane Broncos
7th – Newcastle Knights
6th – North Queensland Cowboys