Mid-season Report Card: Panthers

PENRITH PANTHERS
Mid-season Report Card


Position: 7th
Wins: 7
Losses: 5
Byes: 1
Points: 16
Differential: +46

It has been a while coming but the Panthers might just be reaching their potential in 2009 and as such their first trip to the finals since 2004 is well and truly on the cards.

Four seasons of mediocrity, including a wooden spoon in Matthew Elliott’s first year as coach in 2007, almost cost the mentor his job late last year, but somehow the Panthers have found some growl and have put themselves into the top eight at the halfway point of this close-fought season.

Sure, they might be down in the bottom half of the eight, but they are just one win from equal first and their differential is actually the fifth best in the competition at this stage, meaning their destiny is well and truly in their hands.

Are Things Going To Plan? Pretty much. The Panthers are rolling along nicely, especially compared to the past few seasons. And while they started slow with back-to-back losses to Cronulla (18-10) and the Bulldogs (28-26) they have shown some ticker since. Their other losses came to Melbourne (16-14) in Melbourne, at home to the Broncos (38-18) and away to the Dragons (38-10) so if there is a concern it is the inability to beat the teams in form. Only the win against the Gold Coast (34-20) was against a team currently inside the finals zone so they will need to lift in the big games during the run home.

Their defence is tougher than it has been in past years, despite still having its lapses. Their attack has been first rate and is in fact the second best on average points per game in the NRL.

Injury Front… The Panthers have made it through the first half of the season using 25 players. Injuries have steered relatively clear of the side, save for winger Michael Gordon whose ankle problem will keep him sidelined for some time. Centre Michael Jennings has missed a handful of games recently (after Origin I) due to a leg injury, but he is hopeful of return shortly. The news isn’t quite so rosy for Luke Lewis who has a broken toe and could be missing for up to six weeks.

If Only… Three of the Panthers’ five losses were games the Penrith boys could have won had they had a bit of luck or a bit more fortitude. In Round 1 it was just two late Cronulla penalties that put the game out of reach after the Panthers butchered quality possession with dumb early kicks and mistakes. The following week it took a Bulldogs try at the death (which occurred when they had 14 men on the field and as such were subsequently stripped of the points) to knock the Panthers off. The side was also desperately unlucky in Melbourne; once again they seemed the better team but just couldn’t land the killer blow.

Had they prevailed in two of those games they could be leading the competition outright.

Who’s Flying… Michael Jennings deserved his maiden Origin jersey thanks to a blistering streak of form while Luke Lewis deservedly found his name atop the Dally M Medal count for a long stretch after being sensational so far in 2009. Jennings has scored some unbelievable tries, including a 109-metre effort against the Roosters, to take his season tally to eight (ranked seventh in the NRL) so far.

He also has 12 line breaks which is the equal leader in the NRL. The speedster averages 96 metres a game and leads his club with 51 tackle breaks. Lewis has played an all-round solid game on a consistent basis, making crucial plays at crucial times in both attack and defence.

He has six line breaks, six line-break assists, four tries, four try assists and 35 broken tackles. Captain Petero Civoniceva is pumping out his usual big metres (143 metres a game), Trent Waterhouse almost returned to representative football with some early season form and the likes of Lachlan Coote, Jarrod Sammut and Wade Graham are coming along nicely.

Even ‘cranky’ Frank Pritchard seems to be settled and is playing some decent football. In recent weeks halfback Luke Walsh has proven to be the missing link and could be the glue to push this side forward.
 
Needs To Lift…
The Panther’s don’t really have any major underperformers. However, the side as a defensive unit needs to take it up a notch and their defence to kicks needs some serious fine-tuning – they are the second-worst side in the competition at conceding tries from the boot.

Matthew Elliott Tells NRL.com… “We are an evolving team but we have laid a good foundation and now we just need to take advantage of that solid foundation. I am pleased with how we are going at this point but certainly not satisfied. We know we can achieve a lot more and we are now in a position to go ahead and do that.”

Predicted Finish… This side should be good enough to hold on to a spot in the eight but could potentially still just miss out. They’ll come in between 7th and 9th.

Under-20s…
The Panthers’ Toyota Cup side is down in 11th place at the halfway mark but just a single competition point outside the finals zone. They started the year in dismal fashion, losing six straight but then strung together five consecutive wins before a loss to the Wests Tigers halted their momentum. Winger Michael Fualalo is proving quite the fast finisher while forwards Sam McKendry and Joel Romelo have been consistently strong.