Ladder Position: 7th
Points For: 504
Points Against: 459
Top Try Scorer: Nathan Cleary (11 tries)
Home Record: 8 wins, 4 losses
Away Record: 5 wins, 7 losses
Finals Record: 1 win, 1 loss
Highlight of the Season
It’s tough to single out a certain performance or win as the ultimate highlight of the season for Penrith.
You could suggest the round two hammering of the Wests Tigers, a tremendous response to their shock first-week loss to the Dragons, or the 40-0 smashing of the Knights just weeks later, or even the 38-0 win over the Bulldogs through the middle of the season. These rank as the most complete performances however the highlight of the season will go down as the exposure, growth, and development of a number of Penrith’s young and rising stars.
Players like Dylan Edwards, Tyrone May, Sione Katoa and Waqa Blake came into first grade and forced themselves upon the NRL while the undoubted star was 19-year-old half-back Nathan Cleary, who finished the season as the league’s leading point scorer and looks a genuine representative player in waiting.
Coach Anthony Griffin has copped plenty of flak in the media and amongst fans, especially given the horrendous start the club had, but he can be credited for bringing through and putting faith in some of the best and brightest young players to have come out of the huge Penrith nursery.
For a while, people have talked about the size and strength of the Penrith junior system, without the results really benefitting the first team. But under ‘Hook’, alongside the architect Phil Gould and the rest of the management team on Mulgoa Road, the Panthers looked to have cracked the code and have found a way to tap their vast resources.
Lowlight of the Season
It’s tough to look past the Panthers’ week one loss to the St George Illawarra Dragons at UOW Jubilee Oval in Kogarah.
Pre-season expectations were through the roof for the Panthers, with experts and fans alike tipping them for a top four berth, a top two berth or even a drought-breaking Premiership win. Contrastingly, the Dragons were expected by many to struggle through the season, with some fans calling for Paul McGregor’s head before a ball had been kicked.
To just about everyone’s surprise, the Dragons burst out of the blocks and stunned a Panthers side which looked like it had spent as much or more of their pre-season reading their own hype as preparing for their curtain raising clash.
As the full-time whistle sounded, the Dragons had wrapped up a tremendous 42-10 win over a dire Panthers side and the young, impressionable boys from under the Blue Mountains were slumped, defeated and sat square at the foot of the NRL ladder.
As the season wore on, the Panthers would edge their way in to the top eight and the Dragons would finish outside the finals places, but not before the Red V banked a second win against Penrith to raise more questions.
What Went Right
As previously mentioned the success of the Panthers developing and introducing a number of young talents throughout the season. That’s where the best things have come for the Panthers in 2017.
The introduction of a raft of young players, and the continued growth of others that had seen a taste of first grade previously, has not only brought the Panthers through to their first back-to-back finals campaign since the 2004 season, but shapes as the platform on which further success can be built.
Aside from the young players, and there really should be more praise of half-back Nathan Cleary, introducing a representative quality prop forward in James Tamou was also a huge step in the right direction for the Panthers.
Tamou and fellow representative star Trent Merrin aside, the Panthers boast a young and vibrant forward pack which had the ability to dominate football games with their speed, enthusiasm, and size.
Tamou and Merrin have helped the growth of players like Reagan Campbell-Gillard, James Fisher-Harris and Isaah Yeo, who will all readily praise the impact both players have had on their games during the season.
The sheer volume of players in the first grade setup at the Panthers who are either Penrith juniors or who played their first NRL football with the club is staggering.
What Went Wrong
The Panthers could be accused of taking too much interest in their own hype during pre-season and the early stages of the year through making too many silly mistakes or pushing too unnecessary passes in the wrong moment.
Composure will come for the younger players in the side, but some nightmare outings for guys like Blake against Manly in the last game of the regular season show there is still a long way to go before the Panthers are consistent challengers at the top of the ladder.
The big issue facing the Panthers during most of their losses was an inability to stick with a big, bruising forward pack when they got in their faces. Tamou and others did their best to level this out however against the stronger teams, it caused multiple problems.
There are also suggestions floating around that Griffin has made some questionable selection decisions, with players sometimes forced into positions that didn’t get the best out of them.
Stand Out Player
It’s impossible to go past the son of former head coach Ivan Cleary. 19-year-old Nathan may look very much like a chip off the old block, especially when he’s placing the ball on a kicking tee, but the chisel-jawed youngster already looks the composed and organising half-back that every club dreams of bringing through.
He’s already being touted as the saviour of the New South Wales Blues for as early as next season, something that illustrates all you need to know about how talented this kid is.
Talk of a long-term, $3 million contract offer from the Panthers could see Cleary become the richest teenager still living at home with mum and dad. There looks to be absolutely no risk from the Panthers, who are desperate to lock down the prodigious talent that has been with the club since the age of 14.
Special mentions must also go to bulldozing prop forward Reagan Campbell-Gillard. Affectionately known as ‘RCG’ to most, Campbell-Gillard can likely consider 2017 his breakout season, with some strong performances establishing him as a leader in the forwards.
There are plenty of young players to choose from here, with Tyrone May, Sione Katoa, Viliame Kikau and Moses Leota all making their NRL debuts or taking huge strides forward in their young careers.
However, Dylan Edwards may just edge out all of the above. The 21-year-old, who came through the ranks at the club after moving south from Dorigo on the mid-north coast, came in at fullback and looked a composed, solid option right from the start.
There were some shaky moments and one or two brief scares but Edwards has rewarded the faith shown in him by Griffin and allowed the club to finally move captain Matt Moylan to five-eighth.
Edwards actually made his NRL debut during the 2016 season in a round 18 loss to the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks but from the moment he came on for the round two clash with the Wests Tigers, he has looked at home with the number one jersey on his back.
He became a regular in round 13 and only missed the round 26 loss to Manly through injury. Added to his efforts at the back, the Panthers have won over 71% of the games in which Edwards has been on the field.
Recruitment for 2018
2018 Gains: None
2018 Losses: Sitaleki Akauola (Warrington Wolves), Zach Dockar-Clay (Hull Kingston Rovers), Peta Hiku (Warrington Wolves), Samisoni Langi (Leigh Centurions), Te Maire Martin (North Queensland Cowboys), Michael Oldfield (Canberra Raiders), Malakai Watene-Zelezniak (Wests Tigers)
It has been more about retention and keeping the core of their exciting young squad for the Panthers than it has been about dipping into the market and looking for fresh faces.
Gould has mapped out the future of the playing roster for a number of years moving forward and while some fringe players were allowed to move, Penrith haven’t lost anyone they wanted to keep.
Locking down May, Edwards and Cleary will be a priority for the Panthers while resolving any situation with Moylan will also be important.
The Panthers can look at season 2017 in two ways. Firstly, it could be considered a success for such a young team to come together so quickly and make a second successive finals series. Secondly, the timid end to the year, alongside media speculation about the coach and key players, made it a tough season at times.
If they can secure their young talent and sort out any issues in the roster, then they should be able to build on this year’s efforts and secure a third finals appearance in a row in 2018.
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