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Mid-season review: Penrith Panthers

Position after 13 rounds: 14th 
Wins: 4
Losses: 8
Byes: 1
Competition points: 10
Differential: -71

No, no, no, no, no! You can almost hear Phil Gould’s famous frustration cry reverberating around the foot of the Blue Mountains after the Panthers’ below-average start to the year, during which time they’ve stumbled over a bunch of injury and player dramas.  

Before a ball was kicked there was great optimism out in Sydney’s west. New Football Club Manager Gould was ready to stamp his authority; new coach Ivan Cleary was fresh from taking the Warriors to a grand final… oh, it was going to be great! Instead, fans had to endure a 0-5 start to their campaign at home; watched aghast as Michael Jennings was dropped for disciplinary reasons; sympathised with favourite son Luke Lewis after he was relieved of the captaincy during Origin (a move that’s clearly gutted a guy who has bled for the place a long time); and above all, they’ve had little to cheer about overall with just four wins to date – two of which were secured in their past three outings. 

The side has been far from settled all year, with injuries and poor form making it difficult for coach Cleary to settle on combinations – although if you’re keen on a half-glass-full approach, their most recent victory over premiers Manly must be a sign there are better things around the corner. Right?

Are Things Going To Plan? Most certainly not. After splitting wins and losses over the first month of the season the Panthers went into serious decline. They lost five in a row including back-to-back 30-nil shut-outs against the Sea Eagles and Wests Tigers. They actually went 203 minutes in matches without scoring a try at one point. They only snapped the losing streak with a scrappy golden-point win over a poor-performing Dragons outfit. 

The side is ranked 12th in the NRL for scoring points, posting just 16.3 a game, while defensively they are also ranked 12th giving up 22.2 each week. These numbers simply don’t allow the thought of making a run to the finals. But they are only four competition points away from eighth, so who knows… if they can find a cure to their form they could perform a miracle. Penrith are ranked 10th in metres gained, but third in metres conceded, so if they can up their go-forward they might just be able to make a run at it. 
However, they can do without any more off-field distractions. 

Injury Front… Only five players have played all 12 games for the Panthers (Lewis has played all 11 he was available for) and they’ve already used 27 different players. That number is the equal most used by a team to date (alongside the Wests Tigers).

Michael Gordon’s loss to injury after just one game was huge, and the news he’s subsequently signed to go to the Sharks from 2013 must have been a bitter pill for his team-mates to swallow at the time. 

New Origin prop Tim Grant has played just six games; Jennings has played reserve grade due to disciplinary issues; Nathan Smith has been busted most of the year.

If Only… Everyone could get along. Phil Gould doesn’t pull punches. He’s doing what he thinks necessary to create a tough culture in the outer west, and Ivan Cleary believes the same. 

Cleary is no stranger to captaincy controversy, having given the top job at the Warriors to Simon Mannering when Steve Price was still on their books. 

While the Lewis issue can’t help but be a little disruptive, it’s the Jennings saga that looms larger. The first player in 30 years to play Origin from reserve grade, Jennings obviously hasn’t been on the same page as Cleary and Gould. He is a prodigious talent but has a reputation for occasional laziness and also lacks discipline at times. He needs to get back on that same page. If the Panthers do in fact move to unload their biggest star it could cause more revolt… but if they allow him to do as he pleases, when he pleases, it could undermine what they are trying to instill in the juniors coming through. 

It will be interesting to see how this pans out over the coming weeks – starting with whether or not Jennings is named next Tuesday in the Panthers’ team for their Round 15 clash with the Titans.

Who’s Flying… Tim Grant has grabbed a sky blue NSW jersey off the back of averaging 145.8 metres and 27 tackles, so we should give him some credit. 

Hooker and interim (or will it be permanent?) captain Kevin Kingston has dug deep – he’s currently averaging the most tackles per game by any Penrith player in NRL history (a career-high 46.1 per game). And in attack he’s averaging a career-best 103.2 touches, trailing only Cameron Smith and Matt Keating for the most by any player. 

Luke Lewis has tried his guts out, as usual. 

Needs To Lift… Definitely Jennings. He is not playing dreadfully, as he showed with a solid game in Origin I – but he needs to knuckle down and start winning games for his club. He is on the record as disagreeing with the bad reputation given to his work ethic… okay, he needs to confirm it once and for all out on the field. We all know he has the goods; we’ve seen it on the Origin stage – but he has to provide the same substance to the Panthers, week in, week out. 

Halfback Luke Walsh can help Jennings here – the playmaker probably needs to be more effective at getting their star centre ‘clean’, quality ball, with space to move.  

Predicted Finish… The next month makes or breaks the Panthers. Having just had their first bye they have four tough games (against the Warriors, Titans, Eels and Rabbitohs) before their next bye. They will need to bank at least three wins to have any hope going forward. However, they’ve been so inconsistent it’s hard for us to back them in: we figure they’ll be planning for 2013 sooner rather than later. 

Under-20s… Now here’s a bright spot for Panthers fans! The Panther cubs lead the Toyota Cup at the halfway point of the year, losing just two games and drawing another on their way to nine wins. The side hasn’t lost a game since mid-April. They aren’t the best attacking side in the under-20s comp, but they are one of the best defensively (they’ve conceded just 246 points, the third fewest) – and if you can stop points in the junior comp, you are on your way. Harry Siejka is the man: 11 line-breaks, six tries, 40 goals, 12 line-break assists, 16 try assists, 56 tackle-breaks… very impressive.

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