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IT was a real shame to see the Panthers crash out of the finals the way they did in 2010. After surprising many to finish the regular season ranked second, the Panthers suffered cruel injuries at the wrong end of the year and were dumped from the finals in ‘straight sets’.

With Frank Pritchard gone the side has a little less punch in the forwards but if halves Luke Walsh and Travis Burns can continue their surprising form and the likes of Michael Gordon, Michael Jennings and the returning Lachlan Coote can shift into overdrive in the backline, then they may well just surprise again.

Petero Civoniceva still leads the way up front – and he has reportedly added a few attacking dimensions to his game. With coach Matthew Elliott providing some cutting-edge game plans, this team could be a serious contender. The strange thing about the Panthers though is you get the feeling they could also stumble badly… and be one of the latest teams to be great one year, terrible the next.

How They’ll Play It… Expect the Panthers to play a little differently to past years. Having spent a lot of time attacking the left fringe (where Pritchard lurked) the Panthers will now have to adjust. They are likely to shift focus to the right edge, where Trent Waterhouse was beginning to have similar impact in some games. But with Jennings likely to play on the left they will still send plenty of ball wide.

Once again you can be sure the Mountain Men will look to the kick to score points. In what was a record-breaking year for the statistic, the Panthers scored a whopping 45 tries from kicks. This was almost two per game and accounted for 38 per cent of all tries they scored. Walsh became the master at placing attacking kicks and in Coote they have one of the best chasers of the ball the game has seen.

Expect Plenty From…  Lachlan Coote. When a groin injury halted his play late last season the young fullback had to watch Michael Gordon accelerate from experiencing a great year to a fantastic year. Gordon had already made the New South Wales team on the wing but he excelled even further taking over in the No.1 jersey and finished the year as the leading point-scorer to boot. He also tallied a massive 105 tackle-breaks and 26 offloads. The competition from within will spur Coote to bigger and better things in 2011.

The talk is Gordon may play centre, or drift around in the attack as a second fullback; but coach Elliott knows if Coote doesn’t get back to his best he has a great back-up option for the custodian’s role.

Fully fit Coote, who played for City Origin in 2010, will push Jarryd Hayne, Josh Dugan and more likely Kurt Gidley for New South Wales rep duties.

They’re Going To Really Miss… Frank Pritchard. As inconsistent as he was Pritchard was, on occasion, a match winner. He was a great weapon on the left fringe (51 tackle-breaks and 21 offloads), as he commanded plenty of attention away from Jennings, allowing the speedster to get to work with abundant space. If the defence shifted to Jennings, then Pritchard would demand the ball and bust through and usually always come up with an offload.

Perhaps they won’t miss the weeks when the Kiwi giant seemingly phoned in his performances… these ‘absences’ were also fairly common.

Time To Stand Up… There really wasn’t an individual in the Panthers’ line-up who didn’t pull his weight last season. If we are going to be super-cruel we could say it’s time for captain Civoniceva to prove he isn’t past his use-by date – which is getting pretty picky considering he averaged 139 metres and 23 tackles from 53 minutes every week!

Certainly towards the end of 2010 Civoniceva’s form dipped, culminating in his standing down from the Australian side for the Four Nations final. The episode and subsequent freshening up could be just what big Petero needed though. Having spent time adding an offload and pass to his repertoire this off-season, this could be a year where he further proves “age shall not weary them”.

Coach Watch…  Matthew Elliott eased the pressure around his stressed heart with a solid 2010 season which sadly petered out late mainly due to serious injuries to key players.

But for some reason Elliott is the type of coach who draws plenty of attention when the side lacks performance, so if the Panthers fall into the bottom few teams, expect a few conspiratorial whispers to start doing the rounds.

However, he is an astute coach, deep thinker and source of inspiration so the club would really want to be sure before they ever ‘pulled the pin’ on him.

They’ll Be Boosted By… The Panthers haven’t really recruited anyone of note although former Bulldogs Tim Winitana and Yileen Gordon would like to prove themselves value buys.  Gordon has size and could be an imposing force if motivated correctly.

Predicted Finish... If injuries are kind they may be able to repeat a trip to the finals.

But sorry Panthers fans – our gut feeling is you’re in for a tough year and a 13th-place finish.

Toyota Cup… Last season the Panthers’ under-20s limped home in second last position so they’ll be hoping for plenty of improvement in 2011. No fewer than 20 players who would be eligible for Toyota Cup this season had some experience in the team last year, which should help moving forward.

Gains… Yileen Gordon (Bulldogs), Junior Paulo (Dragons), Nafe Seluini (Warriors), Arana Taumata (Cowboys), Dayne Weston (Titans), Tim Winitana (Bulldogs), Michael Worrincy (Bradford Bulls).

Losses… Josh Bateman (Cowboys), Maurice Blair (Storm), Gavin Cooper (Cowboys), Shane Elford (retired), Wade Graham (Sharks), Daniel Penese (Dragons), Frank Pritchard (Bulldogs).