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Penrith Panthers 2012 preview

Gains: Junior Vai Vai (Rabbitohs), Cameron Ciraldo (Knights), Chris Armit (Bulldogs), Danny Galea (Raiders), Clint Newton (Hull KR, ESL), Geoff Daniela (Tigers), Junior Tia-Kilifi (Bulldogs), Etu Uaisele (Eels), Ryan Simpkins (Titans).

Losses: Timana Tahu (Knights), Shane Elford (retired), Trent Waterhouse (Warrington Wolves, ESL) Junior Paulo (Eels), Matthew Bell (Wests Tigers), Petero Civoniceva (Broncos), Adrian Purtell (Bradford Bulls, ESL), Arana Taumata (released), Masada Iosefa (released), Tim Winitana (released), Michael Worrincy (released), Daine Laurie (Knights).

After a disastrous 2011 campaign that saw the side finish well out of finals contention in 12th and coach Matt Elliott sacked mid-season, the Panthers head into what they hope will be a bright new era in 2012. The arrival of new mentor Ivan Cleary – fresh from guiding the Warriors to last year’s grand final – has fans dreaming of similar success ahead for their club and certainly general manager Phil Gould hasn’t wasted any time in making the tough decisions. Notably, the Panthers have farewelled no less than seven regular members of their NRL squad over the off-season, with captain Petero Civoniceva’s return home to Brisbane the most telling. Trent Waterhouse, Shane Elford, Timana Tahu and Matthew Bell have also moved on – their experience replaced by newcomers Chris Armit, Clint Newton, Danny Galea and Cameron Ciraldo.

Despite the personnel changes, questions remain over whether or not the Panthers boast the depth to challenge the front-runners in 2012. Sorely tested at times last season, it appears that the coming year will be more about establishing a solid base upon which to build than mounting any genuine premiership charge.

Nevertheless, on their day there is no doubt Penrith have the weapons to cause serious damage with centre Michael Jennings keen for a more consistent season and point-scoring guru Michael Gordon back from injury. His battle with Lachlan Coote for the fullback spot will be worth the price of admission alone.

How They’ll Play It: Coach Ivan Cleary may find life a little different at the foot of the mountains after coming from a Warriors side that based its game around second-phase play and lightning-fast halves. Certainly minus Waterhouse the Panthers will lack the prolific off-loading ability of Feleti Mateo and co. and Cleary will want his side to keep it simple through the middle of the park.

Still, there is no doubt that Penrith’s strengths lie out wide where Michael Jennings, Michael Gordon and Lachlan Coote are ready to pounce. If Cleary can drill his forwards to build more pressure early in the tackle count the opportunity to pile on points will certainly present when they do spread the ball.

Expect HUGE Things From: Michael Gordon. Having established himself as arguably Penrith’s most important attacking player in recent seasons, Gordon saw his 2011 ruined by a season-ending knee injury after just nine games – his absence not only robbing him of a likely NSW jersey but the Panthers of their most prolific point-scorer.

Tellingly, Gordon had averaged 179 metres and scored 66 points before injury struck and he will be keen to make amends in 2012. He will likely start the year on the right wing following another impressive showing from Lachlan Coote last season but will be pushing to steal back the No.1 jersey as the year progresses.

Bonus Points: Penrith actually topped the NRL for offloads during the regular season in 2011 with 334 at an averaged 13.9 per game (ahead of Cleary’s Warriors who averaged 13.8), however they have lost their three most prolific off-loaders in 2012 with Trent Waterhouse (56), Adrian Purtell (30) and Petero Civoniceva (27) all headed elsewhere. Still, their absence could prove a blessing in disguise given that they also averaged 12.4 errors per game (better than only the Roosters and Titans). Cleary will no doubt want to get the basics right before he looks to play the expansive style he has typically preferred.

Keep an eye on halfback Luke Walsh again this season following two impressive years with the Panthers. The diminutive Walsh is rarely mentioned among the game’s top halfbacks yet he topped the NRL for try assists in 2010 with 32 and ranked fifth in an otherwise disappointing 2011 with 20 – behind only superstars Darren Lockyer, Jarryd Hayne, Benji Marshall and Johnathan Thurston.

They’re Going To Really Miss: Petero Civoniceva. In a side boasting a young forward pack, Civoniceva provided a level head and years of experience during his four seasons at the club. More importantly, he remains one of the NRL’s finest props and was again a key figure in Queensland’s sixth straight State of Origin series win last season. Civoniceva averaged 122 metres per game in 2011 – more than any other Panthers forward.

It’s Time To Deliver: Michael Jennings. Penrith’s most dynamic attacking player was far from his best last season, struggling to make an impact as the club struggled early on and failing to score a single try until he finally managed to cross the stripe against the Gold Coast in Round 13. Incredibly, that proved to be his only four-pointer in 15 appearances for the Panthers in 2011! With so much experience having departed the club this season, Jennings will need to step up and fill the void.

How’s Their Depth: Questionable. The Panthers struggled more than most when injury struck last season, despite the fact that nine other NRL clubs used as many or more players during their 2011 campaign (Penrith used 29 players). And while Clint Newton is a quality pick-up for the New Year, it seems that they have lost more quality than they’ve gained in 2012. At their strongest Penrith boast a decent squad but they can’t afford to lose the likes of Luke Lewis, Jennings, Gordon, Coote or Walsh for any length of time.

Under-20s: Much like the NRL side, Penrith’s Toyota Cup squad has undergone a much-needed facelift ahead of the 2012 season. With former coach Alex Melville assisting Ivan Cleary this year, former Newcastle Under-20s coach Garth Brennan has taken over the reins at the foot of the mountains where he hopes to restore the club to its glory days.

“Playing in the junior systems at Newcastle and then coaching for nearly 10 years – there were plenty of times where we got thumped by Penrith teams,” Brennan explained. “I’ve been a bit surprised the past couple of years they haven’t been up to where they need to be. It’s an exciting challenge to restore Penrith to where they should be as far as junior footy goes.”

Headhunted by general manager Phil Gould after being told his coaching services would no longer be required at the Knights, Brennan has simple expectations for the year ahead.

“We’re in a process of rebuilding out here at Penrith and it’s a fairly young squad. A lot of the guys are coming out of SG Ball and are a year or two young,” he said. “That’s exciting. I think building to something in the next year or two will be good but my main goal is just to be really competitive this year and every game we play I want to be in the competition. Whoever beats us is going to have to earn it – that’s the sort of mindset I want.”

Keep an eye on centre Tony Satini who impressed after debuting late last year, plus back-rower Vaipuna Tia-Kilifi. The Panthers have high hopes for both.

The Coach: Ivan Cleary was hand-picked by general manager Phil Gould as the man to lead Penrith to a bright new future and it would take a truly disastrous 2012 for his position to come into question. More importantly, the club has accepted that they need to think long term so immediate results are of less significance than building a solid base.

Cleary comes with an impressive pedigree: during his six years at the club the Warriors reached the finals four times, played in three grand final qualifiers and reached last year’s decider before going down to Manly.

Predicted Finish: Depth will be Penrith’s primary concern in 2012. At full strength they boast a competent pack and a lethal backline that could potentially pile on the points; however, injuries invariably have their say and the Panthers are likely to struggle when the crunch comes. A top-eight berth would be an excellent result this season. But – gulp – we see them struggling down the bottom of the ladder, somewhere from 14th to 16th.

Toyota NRL Dream Team view from NRL.com's Lone Scout
The value pick: Former Storm and Knights back-rower Clint Newton could be great value if he becomes a regular starter for Penrith.
The big gun: Michael Gordon was explosive last season at fullback and will be a big scorer again if he regains the No.1 jersey. A quality goalkicker as well.

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