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<p>AFTER two seasons of upheaval, near misses and questions over the side’s ability to live up to their undoubted potential, 2009 looms as D-Day for the Penrith Panthers.</p><p> Coach Matthew Elliott – himself under siege and with a question mark hanging over his future – has rid the club of its ageing veterans and will need his horde of youngsters to step up to the plate if they are to make a genuine finals run this season.</p><p> But there were enough signs last season to suggest that, should they do so, the sky is the limit out in Sydney’s west.</p><p> The emergence of young fullback Lachlan Coote, hooker Masada Iosefa, half Wade Graham and fellow juniors Michael Jennings and Maurice Blair certainly has the Penrith faithful thinking back to 2003 when the likes of Trent Waterhouse, Luke Rooney, Luke Lewis and Luke Swain helped bring the Panthers an unlikely premiership.</p><p> The big question marks, however, revolve around those who have departed rather than the kids of the future.</p><p> The Panthers have farewelled veterans Rooney, Luke Priddis, Tony Puletua, Rhys Wesser and Shane Rodney – all members of that 2003 premiership side – and their success this season will largely depend upon how they cover for that combined 898 games of experience.</p><p> But the talent is there. Jennings, for example, is a Test star in the making and could well push for representative honours in 2009; Coote was a standout last season despite the fact that he doesn’t turn 19 until this coming April; and their back-row combination of Frank Pritchard and Trent Waterhouse looms as the most damaging in the competition should they remain injury free.</p><p> They can also expect yet another impressive year up front from inspirational captain Petero Civoniceva, the perfect man to lead the way for Penrith’s emerging stars.</p><p> Don’t expect Penrith to feature too prominently in many experts’ top eight lists this season, but beware – if they get it all together few will stand in their way.</p><p> <strong>How They’ll Play It</strong></p> Many questions remain unanswered heading into 2009 – namely exactly who will settle into the halves as the season progresses.</p><p> Last season it was Luke Lewis who surprised many with a series of impressive performances in the No.7 jersey and his combination with Maurice Blair began to bear fruit during the latter rounds.</p><p> That same pair seem certain to start the new year together but whoever ends up with the job will be relying heavily on Penrith’s forward pack – by far their greatest strength – to set the tone.</p><p> Any pack featuring Petero Civoniceva up front must have something going forward and with Pritchard and Waterhouse out wide they have the ability to tear any opposition apart.</p><p> <strong>Keep An Eye On</strong></p> Young hooker Masada Iosefa. The cousin of Melbourne enforcer Jeff Lima, the tough and crafty hooker was rated so highly as a junior that the Kiwis took him with them on their 2007 UK tour ... before he had even played a single Toyota Cup game!</p><p> Iosefa represented the Junior Kiwis in 2007 and Samoa in last year’s World Cup.</p><p> <strong>They’ll Really Miss</strong></p> Luke Priddis. A former NSW and Australian dummy-half, Priddis was at the heart of Penrith’s rise to the top in 2003 and was one of their more consistent performers over the past five years.</p><p> Crafty and skilful, he set up all three tries in the 2003 grand final and is also renowned as a tireless defender. Penrith have plenty of young talent coming through but Priddis’ experience is hard to replace.</p><p> <strong>It’s Time To Stand Up</strong></p> Frank Pritchard. The enigmatic back-rower has a nasty habit of going missing in action – drifting in and then out of games when he is needed most.</p><p> It’s a shame, because when he wants to be he is arguably the most damaging back-rower in the NRL – as evidenced by his solo mission to tear apart the Warriors in round 10 last season.</p><p> With so much experience having exited the club during the off-season, it’s time for Pritchard to step up to the plate in 2009. </p><p> <strong>Coach Watch</strong></p> It’s make or break for Matthew Elliott in 2009. His two seasons have provided only glimpses of the premiership form he promised to bring with him from the nation’s capital and having twice missed the finals it is now do-or-die.</p><p> In fact, Elliott himself admits he was lucky to survive the chopping block last year after Penrith’s 12th place finish.</p><p> Rumours of strained relationships with certain players – namely Jarrod Sammut and Frank Pritchard – haven’t helped his cause either although some of those waters appear to have calmed more recently.</p><p> On the plus side, Elliott was responsible for blooding a number of highly-rated local juniors last season and should they fire in 2009 he will be hailed a genius.</p><p> Time will tell.</p><p> <strong>They’re All The Better For</strong></p> Youngsters Lachlan Coote, Wade Graham, Masada Iosefa, Joseph Paulo and Maurice Blair over the past two seasons bodes well for the club’s future and, perhaps more importantly, will provide a much-needed injection of enthusiasm in 2009.</p><p> The Panthers have looked stale and bereft of ideas at times but they looked impressive late last year when Elliott decided to give his crop of rookies a shot.</p><p> Coote was even named man-of-the-match on debut against Brisbane.</p><p> Although it is the likes of captain Petero Civoniceva that will be leaned upon this season, the youngsters could well provide the spark to turn around Penrith’s fortunes in 2009.</p><p> <strong>Predicted Finish</strong></p> It is difficult to see such a young side challenging the big guns for a top-four finish just yet but there is no reason that they can’t push for the top eight.</p><p> If they’re in the mix at the halfway mark, watch for a spirited run home.</p><p> <strong>Under-20s</strong></p> Renowned as Australia’s top nursery for upcoming rugby league talent, Penrith’s huge junior basin was reflected in a strong fourth-place finish last season before bowing out two weeks short of the grand final.</p><p> They will expect to do well again in 2009 but chances are they’ll need to do so without star players Lachlan Coote, Wade Graham, Masada Iosefa and Joseph Paulo for long periods after all impressed when given a taste of NRL late last year.</p><p> “I think they’ll be playing a lot of first grade this year,” new coach Craig Culnane, who joins the Panthers from Parramatta this season, said.</p><p> “I know Matt Elliott was really pleased with what they did last year and he’s not afraid to give the young blokes a go.</p><p> “That’s really good for the rest of the squad to see too – if they play well enough they’ll get an opportunity.”</p><p> Still, Culnane is confident he has the cattle to drive Penrith towards a second consecutive finals finish with prop Tinirau Arona, back-rower Jesse Sene-Lefao, centre Lachlan Mussing and 2008 NSW Under-19s rep Evrett Vaurasi tipped to be the standout players.</p><p> “The boys are all enthusiastic and have trained hard but we’re at the point now where we want to get out and play some games,” he said.</p><p> “The fact that quite a few of our boys have been training with the NRL squad means that we haven’t really seen much of them all together but the rest have been training well so we’re confident of having a good year.”</p><p> <strong>New Breed</strong></p> A 20-year-old back-rower/prop, Joel Orton is a Hunter Valley product who kicked off his local first-grade career at just 17 years of age, mixing it with men twice his limited vintage and showing them up in the process.</p><p> Keep an eye out for more on Joel Orton when brings you New Breed profiles in the coming weeks.</p>
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