Penrith Panthers: 2018 season preview

Picture Credit: S.A.Mc9


While this time 12 months ago the talk around the Panthers was mostly focused on a young side preparing to duke it out at the pointy end all season and, perhaps even snag a first Premiership trophy since 2003, the campaign itself petered out with a whimper against the Broncos and the trophy drought continued.

Since then, club captain Matt Moylan has shifted to the Shire, prodigal son Bryce Cartwright has left for the glitter-strip in south-east Queensland and speculation around a rift between players and head coach Anthony Griffin has continued despite just about everyone, including star players, the coach himself, players who have left, management and head honcho Phil Gould all flat out denying a problem exists.

The arrival of star five-eighth James Maloney offsets the loss of Moylan and should provide young sensation Nathan Cleary with a confident, level-headed partner in the halves, but beyond that, recruitment and retention at Penrith means few overall changes to a unit which is young, hungry and on the improve.

The new faces

James Maloney aside, much of the Panthers' 2018 recruitment has been around filling out the reserve grade squad and ensuring a decent level of depth as the inevitable injuries and fitness concerns crop up in the first grade squad throughout the season.

Rookie five-eighth Adam Keighran comes in from the Bulldogs and should provide an interesting option for the second tier side while Tyrone Phillips, who also comes across from the Belmore-based club provides added depth and versatility across the backline.

While depth was clearly the focus, with the bulk of the first grade squad locked down, the addition of James Maloney is clearly the key talking point ahead of 2018 for the mountain men.

Maloney is a genuine star playmaker and provides the Panthers with a certain level of hard-work, poise, skill and panache that had probably been lacking, or at the very least, not on show consistently enough last year.

Simply put, with Maloney slotting in at five-eighth alongside Cleary, the Panthers look a more stable and robust attacking outfit that they did with Matt Moylan filling the role last season. Much credit must go to the club for turning a potentially poor situation into one where they land a star representative half.

Signings: Adam Keighran (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, 2018), James Maloney (Cronulla Sharks, 2020), Chad O'Donnell (2018), Joey Peato (2018), Tyrone Phillips (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, 2018), Jayden Walker (Cronulla Sharks, 2018)

The departed

On the flip-side, much of the talent that leaves Penrith does so with the blessing of the club and have moved into better personal situations.

Former Kiwi international back Peta Hiku left mid-season last year to finish out 2017 in the UK Super League, but now rejoins the NRL as a member of the New Zealand Warriors while Te Maire Martin, Malakai Watene-Zelezniak and Zach Dockar-Clay were all moved on before the end of the season.

Bryce Cartwright took up a lucrative deal with the Titans which appeared to be as much about getting in position to sort out his personal life than it did about on-field performance. He links up with former Panthers lower grade mentor Garth Brennan who is a first-year head coach on the Gold Coast.

Much was also made of Matt Moylan's high-profile departure but while the Panthers lose a long-term young talent, they have adequately recovered with the capture of James Maloney. Sharks fans may not agree, but there have not been too many neutrals suggesting the Panthers got the raw end of the player swap deal.

 Departures: Sitaleki Akauola (Warrington Wolves), Bryce Cartwright (Gold Coast Titans), Zach Dockar-Clay (Hull Kingston Rovers), Peta Hiku (New Zealand Warriors), Samisoni Langi (Catalan Dragons), Leilani Latu (Gold Coast Titans), Te Maire Martin (North Queensland Cowboys), Matt Moylan (Cronulla Sharks), Darren Nicholls (St George Illawarra Dragons), Michael Oldfield(Canberra Raiders), Mitch Rein (Gold Coast Titans), Malakai Watene-Zelezniak (Wests Tigers)

Predicted line-up

Dylan Edwards
Reagan Campbell-Gillard
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak*
Corey Harawira-Naera
Dean Whare
Isaah Yeo
Waqa Blake
Trent Merrin
Josh Mansour
James Maloney
Viliame Kikau
Nathan Cleary
James Fisher-Harris
James Tamou
Moses Leota
Peter Wallace
Tyrone Peachey

* Dallin Watene-Zelezniak has been ruled out of a round one start, but still comfortably makes Penrith's best 17 this season.

Key players

Nathan Cleary

Much rests on the young shoulders of Nathan Cleary and while he appears to have the right temperament to go along with his undoubted talent, 2018 could be the biggest test he faces yet.

Cleary took the NRL by storm last season, topping the point-scoring charts and guiding the Panthers to the finals with a raft of halves partners and the obvious turmoil of the key man meant to partner him struggling with leadership and other issues.

This year, all 15 clubs will have plenty of film on the young half and they'll be working specific plans to nullify his impact on as many plays as possible, which will likely see him lean heavily on new recruit James Maloney in terms of creativity and attack.

All that said, it seems Nathan Cleary is about as close to a 'can't-miss' prospect as you can get in the modern game. Still only 20-years-old, Nathan Cleary is a genuine superstar in the making and the sort of player Penrith would do well to tie down long-term.

James Tamou

While he seemed to cop plenty of criticism last year, the words coming from teammates and officials at the club were all positive about the former North Queensland Cowboys prop forward.

Having taken young guys like Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Vili Kikau under his wing, Tamou did plenty of the hard work through the middle of the ruck throughout the season. It wasn't pretty or flashy, but that's not what you get out of James Tamou. What you do get is hard work, a distinct graft and a willingness and hunger for metres right through the teeth of opposing defences and that's what Phil Gould and Penrith wanted from him.

If Tamou can back up his 2017 season with a better performance in 2018, the Panthers will be well and truly on the right track.

Peter Wallace

The man tasked with the leading the Panthers after 2017 captain Matt Moylan joined Cronulla over the off-season, Peter Wallace will have plenty of responsibility on his shoulders as he tries to steer a growing outfit to the promised land.

'Wally' was thought to be at the end of his career in the NRL way back during his Brisbane days, ironically under coach Anthony Griffin, but a return to Penrith gave him a new lease on life and he is an incredibly popular figure at the foot of the mountains amongst both fans and teammates, who sing his praises regularly.

Leadership, or the lack thereof, came under scrutiny last season and improvements in that department moving forward will hold the Panthers in good stead in 2018.

2018 prediction

How can you sit down and predict anything about this Panthers outfit with any genuine confidence? With that said, that's what we're here to do, so I may as well take a guess.

With a fresh, exciting halves combination and plenty of exciting young talent across the park, the upside in Penrith is almost limitless. There's every chance the Premiership-favourites tag from last season may come true 12 months later.

On the flip-side, if things don't click and the raft of young players struggle to get off the ground early, scrapping into the top eight could be on the cards yet again.

I'm an eternal optimist, so I'll suggest the Panthers finish inside the top four and set up an epic run to the Grand Final.

How do you think the Panthers will fare in 2018? Let us know in the comments and poll below.

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