Penrith coach Ivan Cleary is a fan of taking the heat off NRL referees with the captain’s challenge but he’s unsure if it’s going to be a success when its rolled out this season.
This was supposed to be the season that the Penrith Panthers would finally establish themselves as a competition heavyweight and entrench themselves in the top four.
They finished tenth.
Off-the-field issues at the start of the season have been well documented but that’s no excuse for what was served up on the pitch. Sacking Anthony Griffin and controversially replacing him with Ivan Cleary was a decision that was puzzling to say the least.
Did they hire him to ensure that Nathan Cleary would remain with the Panthers? Did they think that a coach they sacked only a few years prior would be the messiah that they needed?
Whatever the logic was behind the decision, Cleary walked into a club that on paper looked every bit a top-four outfit plus had one of the greatest academies/nurseries in the country.
Comparing the 17 who took the field in Round 1 to the team that thumped the Knights in Round 25 paints a picture as to how this team has been turned completely on its head.
That side against Parramatta in the opening round was Dylan Edwards , Josh Mansour (rumoured to be leaving), Dean Whare (rumoured to be leaving) , Waqa Blake (left mid-season to Parramatta) , Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (left mid-season to Canterbury), James Maloney (signed with Catalans Dragons), Nathan Cleary , James Tamou , Wayde Egan (rumoured to be leaving) , Moses Leota , Hame Sele (ended the season in the Canterbury Cup), Isaah Yeo , James Fisher-Harris, Reagan Campbell-Gillard (rumoured to be leaving) , Jack Hetherington (rumoured to be leaving), Tyrell Fuimaono (ended the season in the Canterbury Cup) , and Jarome Luai .
In Round 25 against Knights, Penrith lined up with Dylan Edwards , Stephen Crichton , Dean Whare (rumoured to be leaving) , Jarome Luai , Brian To’o , James Maloney (signed with Catalans Dragons) , Nathan Cleary , James Tamou , Wayde Egan (rumoured to be leaving), Moses Leota , Viliame Kikau, Liam Martin , James Fisher-Harris , Sione Katoa (rumoured to be leaving) , Spencer Leniu , Billy Burns , and Reagan Campbell-Gillard (rumoured to be leaving).
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Waqa Blake, James Maloney, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Josh Mansour, Dean Whare and Wayde Egan all leaving or potentially leaving has a lot of Panthers fans questioning the management of the club.
While it’s refreshing to see the club utilising their home grown talent – 14 of the 17 to take the field against the Knights came through the lower grades at Penrith – the fans are becoming restless and are thirsty for success.
By parting ways with so much talent, it now looks like the Panthers are entering another rebuilding phase with no realistic chance of success for a few years at least.
Clearly the academy players are talented – they debuted a league-high nine players this season – but they still require experienced players around them in order to realise their potential.
Api Koroisau is a shrewd signing at hooker to possibly replace Egan or Katoa, with the impressive Mitch Kenny providing back-up, but there is yet to be any other potential incomings. Rumours persist of Jared Waerea-Hargreaves joining the mountain men to add some grunt and experience up front but for now they remain rumours without too much substance.
Even though the Panthers finished the season on a high, they have to consider 2019 to be a disappointment based on pre-season expectations.