Nigel Wall, NRL.com
1. Calm before the storm
This season heralds an era of significant change for the Panthers, with the new coach-and-management team of Ivan Cleary and Phil Gould focussed on drawing a blueprint for long-term gain after years of pain at the foot of the Blue Mountains. But that doesn’t mean the pair won’t also be intent on extracting some instant improvement. Gould anointed Cleary the ‘chosen one’ to guide the Panthers out of their wilderness, and the accomplished former Warriors coach appears a great fit. Certainly he will bring a level-headedness and calm at odds with the emotions and volatility displayed at times by past coaches Matthew Elliott and John Lang. That’s significant change right there.
But results are what count: Penrith have been among the biggest disappointments over the past decade, making the semi-finals just once (2010) in the eight seasons since their 2003 premiership. (And many consider they caught lightning in a bottle that year, given they finished 12th and rock-bottom last in 2002 and 2001.) Meanwhile in six seasons in Auckland, Cleary guided the Warriors to the finals four times, including playing for a berth in the grand final on two occasions and making the decider last year. With general manager Gould passionate about rebuilding Penrith as a major rugby league force in Sydney’s outer west, their partnership may evolve into one for the record books. And don’t bet against the Panthers emerging as the surprise packets of 2012 – there’s one every year, after all.
2. The battle for fullback
There’s nothing like competition to bring out the best in players and with major strike weapons Lachlan Coote and Michael Gordon both eyeing the No.1 jersey, the team unit could be the winner. Coote was the starting fullback last season before an injury in Round 4 saw Gordon take over – with phenomenal results. In his next five games the man they call ‘Flash’ averaged 219 metres a game, plus six try assists, 13 offloads and 31 tackle-breaks. But just as a New South Wales State of Origin (wing) jersey beckoned, he was cut down with a season-ending knee injury – and Coote returned. He was a solid contributor too, averaging 130 metres and four tackle-breaks a game and scoring a team-high 12 tries from just 15 games. Clearly the new coach will have to find room for both players; on paper that seems to indicate Gordon will head to the right wing, with Coote handed the custodian’s role. Cleary will just have his fingers crossed the pair manage more than the four games together they tallied on the field in 2011.
3. Offloading their errors
While Cleary’s former charges at the Warriors are synonymous with second-phase play, it was actually Penrith’s players who led the NRL for offloads last season. On that basis you’d think there would be some correlation with their scoring stats – but in fact the impotent Panthers made just the third fewest line-breaks and crossed for the third fewest tries. However, a look at their most damaging stats tells the story: they wasted far too many opportunities, ending the year with the third-highest error count. Fans expecting more of their devil-may-care attack will be disappointed entering the new season – the Panthers have lost their major offload contributors Trent Waterhouse (56 – fourth most) and Petero Civoniceva (27). The signs point to Ivan Cleary instilling greater discipline throughout the squad, with the error count set to tumble. That will lead to both relieving pressure on their defence and helping build pressure on oppositions through better field position. As a consequence expect the likes of Michael Jennings to score a truckload of tries after his miserable return of just one last season.
4. Safety in numbers
‘Engagement’ is the buzzword out at Penrith – and we mean something other than the potential match made in heaven between ‘Gus’ and Ivan. Rather, the club knows it needs to reconnect with its fan base if it’s to grow and succeed. A major concern is that Centrebet Stadium averaged just 12,299 fans through its turnstile each home game last season – the second-smallest home crowd behind the Sharks. But their early 2012 schedule is kind: they face the Bulldogs at home in Round 1, followed by the Roosters, the Rabbitohs (home), Eels, and then Sharks (home). The Panthers play four of their opening seven games at home and a total of 16 of their 24 games are against sides that failed to make the top eight in 2011. If they can get off to a flyer and establish a solid support base, it will be worth six points a game to them. And that’s the difference between making the top eight and not. Against moderate opposition throughout March they get their chance to make an early statement.
5. The other Luke
While Luke Lewis is expected to raise the bar and offer even more as the new Penrith captain, Ivan Cleary will sleep soundly knowing the No.7 jersey, critical to any team’s strategy and plans, is in capable hands. Luke Walsh was a revelation in his fourth season in the NRL in 2010, finishing with a competition-high 32 try assists. In Penrith’s disappointing 2011 season he still managed 20 try assists, the fifth most by any player. If as expected the Panthers can cut down their errors, Walsh will get a heap more time to scheme and create opportunities for the likes of Jennings, Gordon and Coote. Another strong year for him beckons.