Position after 13 rounds:
Competition points: 12
The Penrith Panthers were flying at this stage last season, just a win behind the Dragons and in with a shout at the minor premiership. The side didn’t get the minor crown but they did finish second in the regular season before injuries consigned them to a ‘straight sets’ finals exit.
Halfway through this season they find themselves in much different circumstances. Their form in the past few weeks has been better but an early season slump cost coach Matt Elliott a contract renewal and the side sits outside the top eight. Phil Gould has come on board as club general manager and a new head coach is due to be announced any day now. The decision seems to have forced the Panthers into playing better, as they know their futures are being scrutinised by Gould.
The question remains: will they continue the recent form through the remainder of the year, or is it just an anomaly? Will the Panthers stay in their purple patch or return to their early season misery?
Are Things Going To Plan? You can’t imagine they planned to lose three of their first four games – including the first two at home – in the manner they did. The Panthers were embarrassed in their opening home games as Newcastle (42-8) and Cronulla (44-12) gave them absolute pastings. The biggest concern was their defence; at times it looked like the team were barely trying.
But the squad have dug deep in the past month or so, winning three of four. Their solitary loss in this time was by just two points.
The Panthers are averaging the third-most offloads per game in the NRL (13.9), which is a major positive, as is the fact they concede the second-fewest metres to oppositions (1250.3).
But there are plenty of statistical weaknesses they can’t be happy about. They would be disappointed at the 20.2 points sides are scoring against them each week (fifth most). The side is also struggling to make line-breaks (12th – 3.2), tackle-breaks (12th – 31.5); plus they make a host of errors (=10th – 12.5) and missed tackles (12th – 34.8).
But the biggest problem for the Panthers is the number of offloads and line-breaks they’re conceding each game. At 14.6 and 4.9 respectively, they’re each the most in the comp.
Injury Front... Fullback Michael Gordon is a huge loss. His knee injury has him gone for the year just when he was really hitting his stride. Timana Tahu was a heralded late signing; but just as he too was hitting his straps he tore a pectoral muscle and is also done for the year.
Sandor Earl has a shoulder injury and is gone for the rest of 2011 while Nigel Plum has a knee problem but is hopeful it’s short term. Luke Lewis missed a few matches but is back now; the same can be said for Lachlan Coote.
Sadly in-form Origin centre Michael Jennings was cut down last game (after finally getting a try in 2011) but is hopeful of being back for the run home.
If Only… The Panthers’ form of late begs the question – where was it earlier in the year? If the side had had a dig early, they would be in the top eight… and Matthew Elliott might still have a job next year.
The only game they lost where they had a real crack at winning was probably the two-point defeat to the Wests Tigers in Round 11. They held the lead late in the match but allowed the Tigers to score twice in the final 13 minutes to steal the competition points.
Who’s Flying… Captain Petero Civoniceva is maintaining his usual high standards. The rock-solid prop is averaging 134 metres, 20 tackles and just generally leading by example.
Michael Gordon was flying before injury; they may struggle in the back end without his average 179 metres a game and countless tackle-breaks (50 in total).
Thankfully it looks like Lachlan Coote is returning to his slashing best. He is averaging 117 metres, has made four line-breaks and scored five tries.
Luke Lewis is another who is rarely sub-standard. He commands multiple defenders every time he runs the ball and does his fair share of defensive work, even if he is missing a few too many tackles (4.1 a game).
Needs To Lift… All of Penrith’s squad have lifted to higher standards over the past month so it’s hard to single out individuals who are slacking off. But it does need to be mentioned that halves Travis Burns and Luke Walsh haven’t been as dominant as they were last year. They aren’t producing as many tries from kicks, which was their bread and butter in 2010. The side is down on line-breaks – which falls to the halves to some degree.
Captain Petero Civoniceva tells NRL.com… “Obviously there is a fair bit going on (coaching matters) but that is in our past. We know there is potential in this team – it is just a matter of being consistent.”
Predicted Finish… Despite their better form of late the Panthers will need a fair bit of luck to make the finals. They will likely need at least seven wins before the end of the year and their draw isn’t easy. Eight of their 12 remaining games are against teams currently in the top eight. With this in mind… they’ll finish between 9-13.
Under-20s… The Panthers’ under-20s are likely to miss the finals after a series of inconsistent games have left them in 12th place at the halfway mark. They have won just four matches and have a negative differential of -153. Unless they can significantly steel their defence, they’re done for 2011. Halfback Harry Seijka has shown promise, making eight try assists and creating uncertainty when running to the line, with five line-breaks.