Penrith winger Josh Mansour sky-rocketed into NSW Origin calculations off the back of his solid form for the top of the ladder Panthers. Credit: Charles Knight. Copyright: NRL Photos.
Ladder position: 1st.
Overview: Phil Gould's famed five-year plan needs urgent re-assessment. Given their sneaky run to the top of the NRL ladder, Penrith's premiership window might have opened a lot quicker than planned. An inconsistent start to the season saw the mountain men fail to win (or lose) consecutive games until Round 9-10, but they've remained unbeaten since, stretching their winning run to four.
Gould went hard in the player market over the summer and it certainly seems to be paying off with most of his high-profile purchases making instant impact on the team.
Importantly, a healthy Panthers squad will go untouched during the Origin period and if they can negotiate a testing final month that includes dates with perennial heavyweights North Queensland, Melbourne and Manly, a home semi-final could be theirs in September.
Positives: Nothing shows more commitment to a coach than a resolute defence, especially one that goes from 12th to 2rd in the space of six months. The Panthers are offering their opponents no more than 15.8 points a game so far in 2014, a marked improvement from the 22.2 they were giving up last year.
Individually, key men Jamie Soward (11 try assists, nine line break assists) and Peter Wallace have thrived in their new surroundings, with Soward often putting the final touches behind an attack steered ably by Wallace. Winger Josh Mansour's power game has reached Origin-level heights this year, contributing a team-leading 188m per game along with nine tries and 64 tackle busts, while ball-playing forward Tyrone Peachey has hit his straps over the past fortnight with two sparkling performances in attack.
Their depth is undoubtedly their biggest strength, with their NSW Cup side also leading the competition on the back of a six-game winning streak. Their under-20s side, who also happen to be the defending premiers, sit in the top eight.
Negatives: While they do have a handful of former Origin players, some might argue that a lack of a genuine superstar holds Penrith back from being a genuine contender. Two of their most recent Origin players in Tim Grant and Jamal Idris are either not in Ivan Cleary's plans or dealing with personal issues that has led to time off the field. Getting a fit Idris back into the fold – both physically and mentally – could be that player for Penrith.
Another tidbit on Cleary's bucket list would be a defence that misses the fourth most tackles per game in the competition. It's obviously yet to hurt them too badly on the scoreboard, but some of the elite teams won't need a second invitation.
Biggest Moment: Matt Moylan's cracking game-winner from the sideline after full-time against the Bulldogs in front of a full house in Round 3 perfectly encapsulates Penrith's stunning rise to competition leader. His representative debut for City mirrors the potential bubbling not just in the Panthers' medium-term future, but in the short-term one as well.
NRL.com prediction: We've consulted the ladder predictor and have the Panthers finishing on a minimum 30 competition points through Round 26. That's good enough to play semi-finals footy but a long way off the top four. Still, they could surprise.