Mid-Season Review: Penrith Panthers

Position after 13 rounds: 2nd
Wins: 8
Losses: 4
Byes: 1
Points: 18
Differential: 85


Are the Penrith Panthers a legitimate title threat? Or are they just another finals imposter that will be tossed aside once the “real” season rolls around in spring?

Well, that’s what we’re going to find out in the second half of this year, as the mountain men – who were also on track for a semi-finals appearance at this time last year, only to fall away at the pointy end of the season – charge towards September.

It’s all come off the back of a vastly improved forward pack and, more importantly, the outstanding play of their pint-sized halfback, Luke Walsh, whose small red boots have set up a formidable 22 tries so far. It all points to a stellar attack which, at the mid-way point of the year, is the best in the NRL.

But questions still remain of the men in black, such as how they might fare against the competition elite – namely Manly and St George Illawarra – whom they’ve yet to play. Their one-dimensional attack – kicks – are sure to dry up, they can lose concentration for long periods of time during games, and question marks remain about their inexperienced, but not young, spine in Lachlan Coote, Wade Graham/Travis Burns, Walsh and Kingston.

Nevertheless, at the halfway point of the 2010 NRL season, the Panthers are sitting positively in second position, and are well on their way to their first finals appearance in six years – the longest absence of any NRL team in the competition.

Are Things Going To Plan?
Despite a solid 2-2 record to start the 2010 season, the Panthers looked anything but, and were probably lucky to come out of the opening month of the year with just the pair of losses against the Storm and Cowboys. But a last-second, come-from-behind victory against the Knights in Round 4 kick-started their year and the mountain men went on to comfortably win five of their next six games.

A disappointing 42-22 loss against the Rabbitohs in Round 12 pegged the 2010 surprise packets a bit, but responded well with a 28-10 triumph over the Knights – again – the week after.
 
So come the mid-way point of the year, Penrith are well-placed in second spot on the ladder, taking the pressure off an upcoming six-week period that includes four tough contests against top eight teams – not including one against the stringent Storm. One could argue that the next month and a half could define their aspirations as genuine premiership contenders.

Injury Front…
It remains to be seen how much of an effect Petero Civoniceva’s hand injury will have on the side – they looked uninspired against the Rabbitohs in Round 12, but recovered well to beat the Knights the following week.

Destructive second-rower Frank Pritchard has also missed a few games with various ailments, the latest being a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the Newcastle game.

The Panthers significantly missed key figures in Luke Lewis and Civoniceva for lengthy periods in the back end of 2009, which was a major factor in them fizzing out of the finals race, so they’ll be hoping that the good luck to the start the year will continue.

Other than that, it’s only fringe first graders Daine Laurie, Nigel Plum and David Simmons who have missed significant time – but even if they were fully fit, those three would struggle to break into the top 17.

If Only… Matt Elliott wouldn’t have a lot to regret so far in season 2010, but if he was to be nit-picky, had the mountain men turned two close losses to the Cowboys (28-20 away in Round 2) and then the Storm (16-10 at home in Round 3) into wins, that would have left them outright first on the competition ladder.

However, the major pre-season goal was to be in a position for a top-four finish, and since they’re currently second, they’re perfectly placed at this time of the year to accomplish the mission.

But if you’re really looking for a clanger, let’s hope Penrith’s medical staff won’t bemoan their decision not to elect for surgery on Michael Jennings’ knee. The Australian representative made even the most ardent Panther fan uncomfortable in the early rounds as he scratched around for form, but the speedster was adjudged to be fully fit, ironically around Origin time – where he was not a part of the NSW selection plan.

Who’s Flying… Lachlan Coote. It was only last year that the ‘Wolfman’ was throwing Coote around like a rag doll. But 12 months and nine kilograms of added weight later, the Windsor whiz kid is tossing his frame around to the tune of a competition-leading 13 tries, as well as more than 82 kick-return metres a game (1st in NRL).

The 2010 City Origin representative is almost like a miniature version of childhood hero Brett Hodgson, only with the leaping ability of Israel Folau. His commitment to competing for Luke Walsh’s bombs this year is second-to-none and has been, so far, the primary weapon in Penrith’s attack.

But the 178cm pint-sized custodian has even more in his arsenal: he also leads the team in tackle-breaks (59), and line-breaks (five).  
 
Needs To Lift… Michael Jennings. It’s hard to be too critical of this fleet-footed speedster, but the career of the Origin and Kangaroo star was supposed to take off in 2010, joining the dizzying heights of the competition elite. Instead, the Blacktown junior’s six tries, five line-breaks and 105 metres per game – all down from this time last year – are just plain, solid figures.

The fact that his team are flying near the top of the table has taken the microscope off his “solid” form, but if the Panthers are to be a legitimate threat in 2010, this budding superstar needs to get his hands on the ball as much as possible and, hopefully for Panthers fans, get through the line. (Penrith are ranked last in the competition for line-breaks.)

Coach Matt Elliott Tells NRL.com…
“Our goal was to play our best footy and we haven’t quite achieved that at the moment. There are certainly dimensions of it that are coming together, but there are things that we need to do, things to add to our game and take out of our game. But halfway through the season, I think we’re tracking okay.

“Our attack’s got a couple of other dimensions to it that we certainly need to see come to the fore. And defensively, like we did in the first half [against the Knights in Round 13], we’ve shown that we can be a fairly dour team and not let too much through.

“But [against Souths] we let in 42 points, so it means we’ve still got work to do.”

Predicted Finish…
They were flying last year, and are again soaring at the top of the table this year, but time will tell whether they have the maturity, consistency and luck in injuries to continue their good form in the second half of 2010.

Inexperience and injuries caused a dramatic landslide at the end of 2009. Will the same happen this year?

It’ll be an intriguing finish for the Panthers, whose fans will find out if they have what it takes to make the finals for the first time since 2004. Our verdict? 5th…

Under-20s…
Despite a mammoth 64-32 victory against defending premiers Melbourne in Round 13, it was just their fourth victory this year, which has been largely disappointing for the biggest rugby league nursery in the world.

While their attack – led by young guns Harry Seijka and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak – has been solid, their defence, which has leaked a league-worst 436 points this year, is their biggest weakness.
Sitting at a measly 15th-place on the ladder, the junior Panthers will struggle to be in the mix at the end of the year.