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Gains: Sam Anderson (Knights), Lewis Brown (Warriors), Ethan Cook (Knights), Maurice Kennedy (Redcliffe Dolphins), Jeremy Latimore (Dragons), Sika Manu (Storm), Wes Naiqama (Knights), Kyle O'Donnell (Knights), Moses Pangai (Cowboys), James Roberts (Rabbitohs), James Segeyaro (Cowboys), Dean Whare (Sea Eagles), Shane Shackleton (Eels), Mose Masoe (Roosters).

Losses: Michael Jennings (Roosters), Mitch Achurch (Leeds Rhinos), Harry Siejka (Warriors), Travis Burns (Hull KR), Michael Gordon (Sharks), Luke Lewis (Sharks), Nafe Seluini (Roosters), Masada Iosefa (Tigers), Arana Taumata (released).

The Panthers are not odds-on for the wooden spoon... but they are 7/2 favourites – odds that appear juicy on paper. That said, in a competition in which reputations count far less than those damned in an ICAC report, Penrith could muscle up and make the eight.

However, that’s unlikely: Club management is talking long term... just nine of the 26 players that carried them to a second-place finish three seasons ago remain. It’s like a year or two they have to have. Rebuilding, planning. ‘The Future’. The senior players they’ve brought in – Lewis Brown, Wes Naiqama, Sika Manu – are hard men who’ve been around. Good first-graders. They’ll mentor the pups, as will the likes of Nigel Plum, Clint Newton and Nathan Smith. And that’s good.

But three of their best have left: Michael Gordon, Luke Lewis and Michael Jennings. New players include kids, journeymen and old guys. And in this National Rugby League, to win more games than you lose, you need a superstar or two. You need quality across the park and you need quality back-ups. Your squad has to run deep. And the evidence suggests the Panthers’ does not.

How They’ll Play It
The Panthers’ ‘spine’ features Kevin Kingston (hooker, captain, a tackle accumulator behind only Matt Ballin), Luke Walsh (halfback) and Lachlan Coote (custodian-cum-five-eighth). Coach Ivan Cleary will want the ball in Coote’s hands as often as possible. The dashing Coote ran 317 times in 2012, amassed the most territory for his side (2665 metres, including 1201 metres on kick-return) and scored nine tries. He even notched two 40/20s. 

And in Walsh (13 try assists in 2012) they have a halfback canny enough to sling it to him. Walsh ranks in the comp’s five best for goal-kicking percentages (80 per cent) and is adept at kicks for leapers either wide or around the posts. And Coote’s a hound under a high ball.

The Panthers have tough nuts in the pack. Plum (average 29 tackles a game) was formerly part of the Canberra Raiders’ sausage factory of big humans. Newton (who led the Panthers in offloads with 30) won a grand final with the Storm. So too did Sika Manu (48 frenetic minutes a game in 2012). Tim Grant (125 metres a game, 26 tackles) is the prop they’ll follow, the hard-charging line-bender. Kiwi tower of power Sam McKendry (16 offloads) will chip in with good second phase. 

Penrith’s defence in the middle channel should be strong. Guys like Brown, Plum, Newton and Smith don’t miss many. And when they get hold of blokes they like to rough them up in the wrestle. They’re strong men and will arrest forward surges. It’s tough, tiring stuff. And Mose Masoe hits like a recession. 

Yet... five-eighth Coote ranked fifth in the league for missed tackles (99) in 2012 and occupied the top two rungs of the dreaded Most Missed Tackles in a Match statistic, missing 12 tackles against the Sharks in Round 21 and the Broncos in Round 26. 

There’s plenty to like about 21-year-old hooker James Segeyaro. He was used sparingly at North Queensland (14 games, average 41 minutes) but was known as a tough and skilful footy player. Expect him to have a crack around the ruck. 

In the backs, Kiwi international Dean Whare (nine tries for Manly) became adept at catching Daly Cherry-Evans’ cross-field kicks. If anything Walsh’s kicks are better. Whare and fellow leaper Wes Naiqama (just six games in 2012) should be practising in concert with their halfback’s hoof like there’s no tomorrow. For without a true, line-breaking weapon, it would appear to be the Panthers’ best avenue to grounding in the opposition in-goal.

And so, as everyone does, Penrith will kick for field position, chase like hounds and smash-monster the other mob in defence. It is ‘basics’ footy that’s brutally effective when applied with sufficient gusto. With the ball they’ll try to hang onto it, play some footy in the opposition 20, win repeat sets. And repeat. Simple.
Or perhaps they’ll play as they did against Canberra in Round 23, when they made a season-high 24 offloads. Perhaps they’ll abandon field position and ball security, and run from everywhere, reckless like a legion of the damned. (But without the likes of Jennings and Gordon, they probably won’t.)

Expect HUGE Things From
Mose Masoe. A big man – built like a bowling ball with arms. He’s come from the Roosters after an injury-plagued few years and word has it he’s training like Godzilla doing high-speed aerobics. That’s good news, because the one thing Masoe needs to improve is his stamina – he averaged just 31 minutes in 2012, with only six runs a game. The Randwick Kingfisher will be itching to show Penrith people what he’s about. And if that includes a front-on bell-ringer on Michael Jennings (in Round 8 at Allianz) he’ll earn cult-hero status back at Centrebet Stadium. 

Bonus Points
Being written off means a coach can galvanise a club around negative comment from “outside”. And no matter how often an opposition coach will drum into his charges’ heads not to take any team lightly, some players do. It’s a fact of rugby league. It’s what’s meant by “not turning up”. 

While some sides will up and crush Penrith, the Mountain Men will win the odd game because elements of the media will have talked them down in the weeks leading up to matches, and opposing players will have read it. It’s all about perception. It’s unavoidable. 

However, whether Penrith can jag enough games this way to remain a top-eight threat is another thing altogether.

The Question Mark
In January of this year Jimmy Smith from The Big Sports Breakfast (2KY in Sydney) posed a question to Ivan Cleary which began: “It’s very hard to pass comment unless you’re actually in the system…” And before he could go further Cleary was in furious agreement: “That’s a great comment.” You could almost hear Cleary nodding. Smith went on: “From the outside in, the Luke Lewis decision… to me he was a local junior, an Australian representative, invariably one of the Panthers’ best… can you help me understand why the Panthers weren’t keen to hang onto him, Ivan?” Cleary exhaled audibly, and replied:  “I haven’t got time for that, really, it’s been and gone. The bottom line was Luke wasn’t happy and wanted to leave the club and… there was a fair bit of change happening in the last 18 months and we decided that as a club we only wanted people who wanted stay and be part of the future.” Cleary went on to say it was a “blip” on the radar and everyone had moved on; nothing to see here. But the question remains: what’s going on in a club when the best players – who are still blokes’ mates – desperately want out?

Who Needs To Lift?
The Panthers will cop some hidings. And every Tuesday back at training they’ll need to find fresh resolve to lift that iron, pound that training track, tackle that bag. And they’ll only do it with example from senior players.

How’s Their Depth?
Not flash. If there are injuries to key personnel – as there invariably will be – it could get grim. 

Dream Team Bankers
Hooker Kevin Kingston (five tries, three try assists, 14 off-loads, an average 49 (!) tackles a game) ranked behind only Cameron Smith and Robbie Farah last season with an average of 55 points across 22 games. He’s expensive though at $414,500. But he’ll tackle all day.

There were roughly 30 points a game last year in Sika Manu ($272,200), Sam McKendry ($272,200) Clint Newton ($231,600) and Lewis Brown ($197,300). There could be bargains in James Roberts ($127,700) if he can get some game time. NYC graduate Tom Eisenhuth ($143,200) is tipped for big things.

The Coach
Penrith fans will understand – because they are often told – that the club is planning for The Future. The old dogs will mentor the pups. But this shouldn’t bear fruit until the kids have played maybe 50 games. And more talent has been acquired and blended into the mix. Meaning... Ivan Cleary has three seasons to make the top eight. If he doesn’t in that timeframe, then the questions will be asked.

Coach Garth Brennan, National Youth Competition Coach of The Year, welcomes back 15 of the squad that finished fifth in 2012. This season Brennan predicts big things from fullback Kieran Moss (with 160 metres of territory a match he was the NYC’s best kick-return man in 2012, and second-best try-scorer), front-rower Regan Campbell-Gillard (averaged 86 metres per game, plus 20 tackles) and Wellentony Tafua ‘Tony’ Satini (10 tries, 10 line-breaks, six line-break assists). Keep an eye also on the exotically named Dallin Watene Zelezniak, a local 17-year-old eligible for SG Ball but who’ll share fullback duties with Moss. Word is he’s a bit special.

Predicted Finish
If the club is resigned to experiencing a rebuilding stage, anything above 12th place in this ultra-competitive Telstra Premiership will be a bonus. But a lower-rung finish is more likely. 13th to the dreaded wooden spoon is our assessment.
Statistics: NRL Stats
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