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Season review: Penrith Panthers

Ben Blaschke NRL.com Tue, Oct 02, 2012 - 3:30 PM

Despite struggling early in the season, the Panthers enjoyed a good run of form late in 2012. Copyright: NRL Photos

REGULAR SEASON
Wins: 8
Losses: 16
Position: 15th
Home Record: 4 wins, 8 losses (=14th)
Away Record: 4 wins, 8 losses (12th)

Longest Winning Streak: 2 (Rounds 20-21, 24-25)
Longest Losing Streak: 5 (Rounds 5-9, 14-19)
Players Used: 33
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 72 (16th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 98 (13th)

It’s fair to say that Penrith fans won’t forget 2012 any time soon. A year in which new coach Ivan Cleary arrived promising to put his own stamp on the place certainly didn’t disappoint. Poor on-field results, star players being dumped from first grade and others jumping ship: if nothing else, it’s been an eventful few months.

To be honest, it’s difficult to cast fair judgment on the season just passed given that the harsh decisions made by Cleary and general manager Phil Gould are all about success in the long term rather than the short. Until we find out whether that success arrives, judgment must remain reserved.

But, tough times or not, there is no doubt that Cleary would have been hoping for a better return in his first year in Penrith than a 15th-place finish. In the end a combination of injuries, a lack of firepower, disciplinary issues and disillusionment amongst some of the club’s longer-serving players all conspired to thwart any chance of a top-eight finish.

Consistency was a problem all year for the Panthers. After a promising start that saw them score solid wins over the Sydney Roosters and Parramatta and go down in a gripping season-opener 22-14 to eventual minor premiers Canterbury, Penrith began a rapid descent down the NRL ladder with five losses in a row between Rounds 5-9 and just two wins from 13 games up to Round 19.

It was a drama-charged period. While another lengthy injury layoff to fullback Michael Gordon seriously impacted on their strike-power, Cleary made his presence felt when he dumped star centre Michael Jennings to NSW Cup side Windsor Wolves in May, then threatened to do the same to halfback Luke Walsh a few weeks later.

That Jennings was picked in Ricky Stuart’s NSW State of Origin squad in the midst of his NRL exile – and performed strongly – cast doubt over Cleary’s claims that he had been dropped for poor form although it is widely believed his axing was due to disciplinary reasons.

It was around the same time that Gordon shocked Penrith officials by announcing he had signed a three-year deal to join Cronulla from 2013 – shunning the Panthers’ desperate attempts to keep him.

In late June, two more players departed with Nafe Seluini and Sandor Earl granted immediate releases to join the Roosters and Canberra respectively (Earl playing a key role in the Raiders’ late surge into the finals).

And then came the Luke Lewis saga.

A veteran of 12 seasons in the top grade and the sole survivor of Penrith’s 2003 grand final success, Lewis had always been viewed as the quintessential one-club man but cracks started to appear in that wall during Origin when Cleary decided to temporarily relieve him of the captaincy duties, claiming he wanted to relieve the pressure on the Panthers’ most experienced player.

Lewis was said to be seething at the decision and on July 8 the unthinkable happened when he announced that season 2012 would be his last at Penrith.

“(At a) meeting this morning Luke indicated he was feeling stale and was looking for a new outlook and challenge in his life,” Gould said at a press conference to announce Lewis’ departure.

“Luke feels like he needs a change of environment to achieve his goals. He probably doesn’t want to go through the pain of rebuilding a club at this stage of his career… he made a very brave decision.”

On a personal level, the drama wasn’t over for Lewis. Having suffered a neck injury against Wests Tigers in Round 19, CT scans revealed that he was suffering thyroid cancer. Caught early, he was given the all-clear a few weeks later but the surgery denied him the chance to farewell Penrith fans as he had hoped when ruled out for the remainder of the season.

Ironically it was those last few months of the season that were Penrith’s best, with four wins from six games between Rounds 20-25, and despite all the drama that preceded it, the criticism that had flowed the club’s way for much of the year was replaced somewhat by cautious optimism.

Much of that had to do with the return from injury of a number of players, not least of which Gordon – and although he won’t be there in 2013, his presence at the back end of the year saw Lachlan Coote shift to five-eighth with surprisingly promising results.

Again, narrowly avoiding the wooden spoon was far from the season anyone linked with the Panthers wanted and the knives will no doubt be sharpening should some semblance of results not materialise early in 2013. The fact remains however, that it had already been a long time since Penrith could be considered genuine premiership contenders.

And if Cleary and company can achieve what none since John Lang have managed over the past decade, perhaps all of the upheaval of 2012 will eventually be forgiven.

Where They Excelled… Despite Michael Jennings being temporarily banished to NSW Cup, the Panthers were always dangerous when they attacked to his side of the field. In fact, while they scored 16 tries on their right side and 16 more through the middle, they added a whopping 40 tries when they headed left. That’s more on that side of the field than top-eight sides Canterbury (37), North Queensland (36), Melbourne (35), Manly (33), South Sydney (33), Brisbane (31) and Cronulla (30).

Where They Struggled… Penrith’s kicking game was particularly poor in 2012. They were the worst side in the competition when it came to finding open space from clearing kicks with just 84 of 191 landing on grass at a success rate of 44 per cent. They kicked out on the full nine times – the equal most of any side – and scored just 15 tries from kicks (only three sides scored fewer). That’s quite a remarkable slide given that in 2010 they scored a whopping 42 tries from the boot – 14 more than any other club!

Missing In Action… Injuries were cruel to the Panthers, with coach Ivan Cleary working his way through 33 different players throughout the course of the season. With depth questionable before a ball had been kicked, the last thing Penrith needed was to lose Michael Gordon to a broken leg in the opening round after he missed much of last season with a knee injury. Gordon played just seven games all year, while injury and illness limited Luke Lewis to 13 games. Among other key players to see minor game time were NSW Origin prop Tim Grant (16 games), Chris Armit (11), David Simmons (16) and Danny Galea (14). The controversial 12-week suspension of Travis Burns also saw him limited to 16 games, ending his NRL career early.

Turning Point… Penrith headed into their Round 5 clash with Cronulla at Centrebet Stadium with two wins, two losses and the chance to get their season moving with some forward momentum. Instead, a heart-breaking 15-14 loss to Cronulla in Luke Lewis’ 200th game for the club kick-started a season-defining five game losing streak. Having come so close against the Sharks, Penrith capitulated in the ensuing weeks with heavy losses to Manly, Wests Tigers, Newcastle and Melbourne.

Best Games… Coming in the week that captain Luke Lewis was laid off as captain, Penrith produced their strongest 80 minutes of the season to upset a full-strength Manly outfit 22-4 in Round 12. A solid defensive display formed the basis of the Panthers’ victory as they repelled repeated attacking waves before powering home in the second half with two tries from well-placed grubbers and a solo effort from Lewis, who was clearly determined to make a statement. A 21-20 golden point win over Cronulla in Round 21 was also a highlight, with Michael Jennings levelling the scores with 40 seconds remaining before Luke Walsh slotted a field goal early in extra time.

Worst Games… The Panthers will still be having nightmares about the Melbourne Storm, finding themselves on the wrong end of a thrashing not once, but twice in 2012. In Round 9 the home side led 10-6 after 22 minutes but capitulated badly as Melbourne raced in seven unanswered tries to romp in 44-10. And worse was to come in Round 22, the Storm snapping a five-game losing streak with a 46-6 win at AAMI Park. That second performance was particularly disappointing for the Panthers: they conceded the opening try in the very first set of the game and five more in the opening half to trail 34-0 at half-time.

Hold Your Head High… Young prop Tim Grant stepped into the void left by former captain Petero Civoniceva in 2012, leading the way up front and earning a call-up to the NSW State of Origin squad (where he impressed from the outset). Grant, who could well take over the Panthers’ captaincy next season, kicked off the season with a career-best 202 metres against Canterbury and finished the year having averaged 125 metres and 26 tackles per game.

Also impressive was rookie winger Josh Mansour who made every post a winner after making his debut in Round 9. Mansour’s pace and ability to break the line saw him named joint RLPA Rookie of the Year alongside South Sydney’s Adam Reynolds.

Conclusion… There was never a dull moment at the foot of the mountains in 2012 but, alas, fans were ultimately left with little to celebrate. The question is whether or not they under-achieved and to be fair, realistic (outside) expectations at the start of the season weren’t too high to begin with. In this regard, action had to be taken – and coach Ivan Cleary took plenty. The hope is that within the next two years all of those tough decisions will pay off, but in the meantime the Panthers are left to lament another underwhelming season.

*Statistics: NRL Stats