Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent, NRL.com
With a host of new signings at the club, the Panthers are one of the most intriguing NRL teams in 2014. How does their coach see their season shaping up?
Q: In case you haven't heard, there's an injury epidemic going around the NRL, so we'll start with that. Has the bug reached Penrith?
A: We're not too bad with our strongest team. We've got a few injuries in our second tier – a lot of outside backs. We lost three of them at the Nines – George Jennings, Wes Naiqama and Eto Nabuli. They're all out for at least six weeks, Eto might be longer. Luke Capewell's out for a few more weeks, and so is James Roberts. We've got quite a few guys missing, but in our top squad the biggest concern at the moment is Jamal Idris, but he's very close for Round 1. We'll see how that one goes. Jamie Soward and Tim Grant will be fine.
Q: What is your theory on pre-season injuries anyway? Every coach has one...
A: It's not a black-and-white thing. There always seems to be bigger injuries early in the season. I don't know the exact data on it but as long as I've been coaching, there seems to be big injuries early in the year, especially once they're conditioned a bit more. I feel as though there were more in the Nines than normal trial games, but that's only my gut feel. They were some big injuries too, you know? It's a hard one.
Q: Are trial games a necessary evil?
A: I think if you didn't have trial games, you'd still get injured in the early rounds. I've experienced plenty of injuries in the first few games, even after guys have played a few trials too. Player recovery, player preparation, information on loading and all that stuff, it's better than ever. But we have a game that's getting harder and harder, everyone's getting bigger and faster. It's a hard one really.
Q: In the trials you lost one game against a full-strength Tigers team, then smashed two NSW Cup sides. What's your summation?
A: Yeah, we haven't had the best trial period just by nature of how it went down. We work harder and harder to book in trials these days because a lot of clubs have got pre-standing agreements for a number of years so you're trying to get your trials organised pretty much halfway through the year for next year. So we locked in the Tigers and the Roosters. Once we sorted them out, the Nines ended up getting thrown in and then the Roosters won the comp, so we were stuck. We only had the Tigers left, and I decided I didn't want us to have our best team playing four weeks out from the comp starting. So as it's turned out, we played a couple of games.
Q: And how do you think they went?
A: It's been a bit mix-and-match really, playing lower-strength opposition, some of our guys playing higher strength against the Tigers. So I guess time will tell but I feel like we still got a lot out of it. I realised some things we have to work on and we got some good results out of things we practiced too. And everyone's pretty much got the right game time out on the field. I guess we'll find out.
Q: Are you expecting more teething problems with on-field chemistry then, given how many new players you have at the club?
A: No. Having said that, I'm sure, like everyone else, we'll improve as the season goes on. Everyone will do that, regardless of the combinations you may or may not have. It's early on in the year, it will take a bit of time, but those guys are also experienced as well. It may just mean that we still try and create a game that's going to give us a chance to win. What you need to do to win in March is different to what you need to do to win in September.
Q: What about your new halves pairing of Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace? They come with good CVs. How have they handled the spotlight?
A: It's hard to tell. They're both training and slotted in really well and I guess you'd expect that from their experience and the standard of player they are. That's the main reason they're here. They fit in pretty easily, but that's training. We'll find out a little more once the games start. But from what I've seen in practice, it's been really good.
Q: Given the improvements you showed last year and the quality of recruitment you've made over the summer, have you had to address the team about expectations this year?
A: Yeah, we've spoken about it. Last year we had no expectation. This year there's a bit of expectation, but it seems a lot more because of how little we had last year. But that's a good thing, you know? If people are expecting more, that's because we've given them reason to and that's all part of the gig. The expectations will be no higher than what we expect of ourselves. That's part of the deal.
Q: Tell us about the captaincy situation. The club was willing to let Kevin Kingston walk away last year but he was re-signed. Is he still the captain?
A: Kevvy's still the captain of our club. There'll be a couple of leadership things we'll tinker with, but at this stage, it's the same thing. He's done a great job and I'm sure he'll continue to do so. [UPDATE: The Panthers have announced Kingston and Peter Wallace will co-captain the team in 2014.)
Q: What's been your biggest position battle in the team?
A: We're pretty much sorted. Although injuries have had a hand in that, I must say. We probably had a few that were, especially in the outside backs, that were up in the air. But injuries have sorted those out for us really.
Q: Phil Gould describes Jamie Soward as your marquee signing. How have you assessed his impact on the team since arriving?
A: He's been good, you know? He's an experienced campaigner. Most of his experiences have been good, although he's had to prove himself before as well, probably when he first came into first grade. He left the Roosters, went to the Dragons, but he's one of those guys that seems to have a lot of... he polarises opinion a little bit, Jamie. [And] he's in that position again really, where he's probably got to prove a few things.
But I don't think he's thinking too much about that. He's come into a new team and anyone who comes into a new team, especially after a long time at another club, you're just trying to earn respect. And that's what he's been trying to do. He's got a good pre-season behind him – there was a little hiccup with injury last week, but that's not too bad now. So far, I've got to say, I've got to give him full marks for what he's done so far.
Are you a master coach in the making? Pick your Holden NRL Fantasy team now