Season Preview: Penrith Panthers

THERE was plenty of fanfare a few years ago when the Panthers unleashed the best of their juniors onto the NRL scene. However, it’s been more purring than roaring in recent seasons. But now the kids have all grown up; they’ve put on some major muscle over the summer months, suggesting Penrith is now ready to play. <br><br>Michael Jennings, Jarrod Sammut, Lachlan Coote, Wade Graham, Masada Iosefa, Tim Grant and Joseph Paulo have all developed through the biggest junior program in the world and now they’re ready to show how good they can be. <br><br><b>Their Keys To Success...</b> It’s no secret Penrith’s strength in attack is their left-side combination of Frank Pritchard and Michael Jennings; you’d have more chance of stopping global warming than you would these two when they’re on song.<br>&nbsp;<br>And while that’s clearly the key to getting their points, they’ll need a lot more than that to succeed this year. The addition of Daine Laurie and the return of Lachlan Coote gives Elliott more options with ball in hand. <br><br>But the biggest area for improvement is their defence, which leaked a horrendous 24.5 points a game in 2009 – second worst in the competition. They can score as many points as they want, but – unfortunately – they generally let in more than that. <br><br><b>Expect Plenty From...</b> Lachlan Coote and Jarrod Sammut. They say fullback is a lonely place and it couldn’t be more so for two of the smallest players in the NRL. <br><br>Penrith fans have cringed as Coote has been repeatedly flattened, while last year Sammut simply couldn’t take a trick out of his bag of tricks. But word out at the ’Riff over the summer is that they’ve both packed on the muscle – you may have seen newly hulk-framed Sammut trying to ‘justify his existance’ – but now it’s a clash of the lightweights for that no.1 jersey. (Good luck picking the winner Matt Elliott, although either way you’ll be in capable hands.)<br><br><b>They’re Really Going To Miss...</b> Paul Aiton. The Sharks are saying that their new signing played most of last year with a busted knee. If he did, he did a damn good job hiding it. The Papua New Guinean played in all 24 games in 2009, and was one of the only constants in an inconsistent Panthers side. <br><br>Grand final hooker Kevin Kingston was the first to be squeezed out of Parramatta and may provide adequate cover, but it’ll take some time to develop the combinations Aiton built. <br><br><b>It’s Time To Deliver...</b> Frank Pritchard. You could have written this name in this space for the past few years; certainly Penrith fans have been waiting a mighty long time for this Kiwi international to fulfil his potential as one of the best second-rowers in the world. <br><br>But now, with a younger destroyer in Daine Laurie behind him, a decent half in Luke Walsh inside him and a mega-superstar in Michael Jennings outside him, it really is time for Frankie to stop with the flashes and give us the full show.<br><br><b>Coach Watch...</b> Matt Elliott signed a two-year extension last year – but it mightn’t last that long if the results don’t come soon. He’s yet to savour finals action since his arrival at Penrith four years ago. <br><br>Now armed with his best group of footballers since his arrival, if the former Canberra mentor – once described as the next big coach in the NRL – can’t get this crew to the semi-finals, there will be uproar from the foot of the mountains.<br><br><b>They’re All The Better For...</b> Daine Laurie. While not quite in the same mention-league as Todd Carney or Greg Bird, Laurie has had enough off-field issues to suggest that the destructive force may turn out to be an unwise pick-up. However, under the wing of Petero Civoniceva, one of the most professional players ever to step on a field, Penrith could just be the perfect environment for the dreadlocked forward to cause problems on the field. <br><br>Kevin Kingston fills a hole at hooker, ex-Raider Adrian Purtell has a shot at a vacant wing position, while ex-Cowboy Travis Burns and ex-Raider Nigel Plum give Elliott some decent options. <br><br><b>Predicted finish...</b> Penrith were a top eight chance for the majority of 2009 but a dreadful finish saw them sink all the way to 11th. But another year for their youngsters and, more importantly, a considerable splash in the free market means the Panthers have improved and are now more than capable of a spot in eight in 2010. They can finish as high as 6th.<br><br><b>Toyota Cup…</b> Owners of the biggest rugby league nursery in the world, the Panthers are supposed to have the cream of the crop and be permanent fixtures in the junior finals. But a disappointing 13th-place finish last year has seen a clean-out and second-year coach Craig Culnane has almost an entirely new squad to work with. <br><br>Centre Greg Waddell and playmaker Harry Seijka still remain though, and need big years to justify the big contracts they signed a few years ago.&nbsp; <br>