Home Record: 6 wins, 6 losses (12th)
Away Record: 3 wins, 9 losses (=10th)
Longest Winning Streak: 2 (Rounds 12-13 and 16-17)
Longest Losing Streak: 5 (Rounds 20-24)
Players Used: 29 (=8th most)
Player Of The Year: Luke Walsh
Tries Scored (After 26 rounds): 72 (3rd fewest)
Tries Conceded (After 26 rounds): 90 (6th most)
Expectations were high this season following Penrith’s top-two finish 12 months ago but unfortunately 2011 will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
A slow start to the year set the tone for what was to come over the next few months with just one win from their first four games including an embarrassing 42-8 thrashing on home soil in the season opener and a similar 44-12 result against Cronulla two weeks later.
The Panthers’ board didn’t waste any time in taking action, informing coach Matthew Elliott that 2011 would be his last with the club and appointing 1991 premiership-winning coach Phil Gould as football club managing director – his primary tasks being to oversee coaching operations and find a new head mentor for the 2012 season.
That decision attracted plenty of interest around the NRL but it didn’t do much for the side’s on-field fortunes as they reached Round 8 with just two wins to find themselves sitting 15th. Perhaps inevitably, Elliott would eventually stand down with assistant Steve Georgallis taking over as caretaker with a view to being appointed to the head coaching role full-time.
For a while it seemed that the move was a good one too, with the Panthers notching rare back-to-back wins in his first two games against North Queensland and Canterbury, but his hopes of continuing on in the role next season were quickly dashed when Gould announced Warriors coach Ivan Cleary as Elliott’s full-time successor in 2012.
The club was also rocked by the news that captain Petero Civoniceva would be heading back to Brisbane next season after three years at the foot of the mountains.
Despite moving up to as high as eighth on the ladder following a remarkable come-from-behind win over Parramatta in Round 19, Penrith’s dramatic season quickly fizzled from there, with five consecutive losses ending any hopes of finishing on an unlikely high.
Where They Excelled: Second-phase play was one of the few areas in which Penrith troubled their opponents in 2011 – topping the league with an average 13.9 per game. Leading the way was departing back-rower Trent Waterhouse (to Warrington) with a team-high 56 while Adrian Purtell (30), Civoniceva (27) and Luke Lewis (24) were also busy.
However, their offloads failed to spark their attack, with the brilliance that was so characteristic of their 2010 season missing in action most of the time.
Two players who can hold their heads high are fullback Lachlan Coote – who scored 12 tries in 15 games – and Lewis. Unfortunately both spent extended periods on the sidelines when their team needed them most, the pair playing just 15 and 14 clashes respectively.
Where They Struggled: The Panthers were mediocre at best in defence but it was their usually sparkling attack that really let them down. The fact that strike weapon Michael Jennings didn’t cross the tryline until Round 13 was typical of their woes with the ball in hand.
Penrith ranked 14th for tries scored with 72, 14th for line-breaks with 3.2 per game and 14th for tackle-breaks with an average 30.9. They scored 12 points or less in nine of their 24 games in 2011.
Missing In Action: A season-ending injury to Michael Gordon was a cruel blow for both club and player. In scintillating form since replacing Lachlan Coote – who also missed a large chunk of the season with injury – at fullback, Gordon was expected to earn a place in Ricky Stuart’s new-look State of Origin team but instead tore his ACL in the Round 10 win over Brisbane and saw his season end on nine games.
Injuries to key players hurt the Panthers in 2011 with Luke Lewis playing just 14 games, Michael Jennings 15 and Nathan Smith 16.
Turning Point: Five-eighth Travis Burns had successfully booted 24 of his previous 25 shots at goal when he lined up a crucial second-half conversion to level the scores against Manly at CUA Stadium in Round 20, but incredibly an ugly low hook saw him miss from in front. The Panthers were visibly shaken by the miss, which allowed Manly to sneak home with a narrow 12-8 win despite having just 31 sets to the Panthers’ 48 and defending for almost the entire second half.
The loss not only highlighted Penrith’s lack of attacking spark but also seemed to put an end to their resolve – instead of notching their third consecutive win they went on a five-game losing streak to quickly fall out of finals contention.
Best Games: The Panthers’ faithful will be talking about their side’s incredible Round 19 win over rivals Parramatta for years to come. In what was yet another classic battle of the west, Penrith looked down and out when they trailed the Eels 22-16 inside the final five seconds with Parramatta in possession. But when Luke Burt was tackled on the fifth in the hope of running down the clock – only for referee Jared Maxwell to insist the Panthers had time for one play – the unthinkable happened.
Throwing the ball around with reckless abandon as they went from left to right then back again, Michael Jennings produced a piece of magic as he stepped his way through before putting a grubber in for Lachlan Coote to score.
That try sent the match into extra time and Luke Walsh calmly slotted an 87th-minute field-goal to give his side a stunning win.
Worst Games: With the lure of a brand new season and the countless prospects it brings, it’s rare to see blowout scores in the opening round as each team strives to put their best foot forward. Not so Penrith, who were inexplicably absent as Newcastle notched a massive 42-8 win at Centrebet Stadium on the first Sunday of the season. The Knights led 22-2 at half-time and scored seven tries to two as the first cracks in Penrith’s season of woe began to show.
Hold Your Head High: Prop Tim Grant played 23 games for the Panthers in 2011 and did his best to get his struggling side going forward. Grant averaged more than 116 metres per game and 24 tackles in a tireless effort at the foot of the mountains.
Fullbacks Gordon and Coote also impressed. Gordon averaged a monstrous 179 metres in his nine games early in the year while Coote notched 12 tries, made nine line-breaks and averaged 130 metres in a series of typically busy efforts.
Coach Steve Georgallis says: “To the boys’ credit they never stopped trying but we just didn’t have the strike power to get the job done at the end of the year. We were missing Luke Lewis for a big part of the year, Lachlan Coote was injured, Michael Jennings… and of course we lost Michael Gordon early. It’s not just that we were missing players but the calibre of the guys that were injured. I can’t fault the players for the effort they put in but we weren’t good enough in the end. We had the cake but we didn’t have the icing.”
Conclusion: While injury certainly played a key role in Penrith’s poor showing in 2011, it seems that this is a club needing a shake-up. In fact, captain Petero Civoniceva said as much in a parting shot at the Penrith board which he believes has grown stale. Still, that’s why ‘Gus’ Gould has been brought in. It is hoped that the arrival of coach Ivan Cleary – who has certainly provided stability in his six years with the Warriors – will signal a similar revival at a club that has seriously under-achieved since winning the grand final back in 2003.