Panthers 2014 Season Preview
The 2014 Penrith Panthers are like that rundown, local watering hole down the road that's undergone some massive renovations and is spruiking a new lease on life. The joint looks as appealing as it does intriguing, and you can't wait to see what it'll look like when it's done.
You've got a couple of questions before buying in though.
It's a handy paint job and all, but will it last? What kind of style did they go for? And how much did they spend on the new furniture?
For the new-look Penrith side, it'll be a wait-and-see approach this season. Still, nobody hates new playthings, and the Panthers grabbed a whole toy store of them over the summer.
There's the batch of former NSW Origin players in Peter Wallace, Jamie Soward, Brent Kite and Jamal Idris; a fourth New Zealand representative in Elijah Taylor; and a couple of lively young guns in Kevin Naiqama and Tyrone Peachey.
That's more than half a dozen new pieces of the puzzle that quiet-achieving coach Ivan Cleary gets to fit in and around an already improving squad that left many experts with egg on their face last season.
With a handful of games remaining in 2013, the Panthers surprisingly found themselves sitting seventh on the ladder and eyeing a possible elimination final. As the business end rolled around however, the pressure of the big moments proved too much for the Cleary's inexperienced side and they finished just one win shy of an unlikely September appearance.
Cleary himself admits the Panthers didn't handle pressure too well, a factor that was addressed with an extravagant off-season spending spree where they added over 650 games of NRL experience, plus 17 Origin games and 24 international Tests.
"It was obvious in the pre-season what those guys bring in terms of confidence and education," Cleary said recently.
"Pressure is the big difference in top level sport. When the pressure is on this year, I'm very confident we'll be able to handle it."
The rundown pub down the road made some improvements last year and it looked promising. But now it's undergone an extreme makeover, will it find the success it lacked?
Gains: Peter Wallace (Broncos), Jamie Soward (London Broncos), Elijah Taylor (Warriors), Brent Kite (Sea Eagles), Kevin Naiqama (Knights), Tyrone Peachey (Sharks), Shaun Spence (Tigers), Will Smith (Knights), Leilani Latu (Bulldogs), Wellington Albert (Lae Tigers, PNG), Jamal Idris (Titans).
Losses: Lachlan Coote (Cowboys), Luke Walsh (St Helens), Mose Masoe (St Helens), Clint Newton (Knights), Travis Robinson (Storm), Blake Austin (Tigers), Cameron Ciraldo (retired), Toby Evans (Eels), Dayne Weston (Storm), Kyle O'Donnell (Raiders), Brad Tighe (Titans).
How They'll Play It
Unassuming winger David Simmons was their most reliable source of points last season. This year there's strike power all across the park, and the late signing of Jamal Idris makes them even more dangerous.
With the level-headed Wallace steering the ship, Soward will be given free reign to play it as he sees it on both sides of the field. And if the Panthers improve on the 22 points per game they conceded last year (12th best in the NRL), it'd make a hell of a recipe.
Expect HUGE Things from
The Panthers bench. We've expanded more on their depth below, but Clearly will be assured to know that at full strength, he can rely on the wizardry of James Segeyaro, the impetus of McKendry and the ball-playing of Tyrone Peachey should the Panthers get off to a slow start in games. On the flipside, imagine the havoc they could do with a lead?
The Question Marks
Wonderkid Matt Moylan's interrupted introduction to NRL last year was frustrating to watch, but his skinny frame will surely be tested as teams target him. With the powerful Kevin Naiqama also on the books, the fullback position is something Cleary would want sorted as his side attempts to strike on-field chemistry.
Perhaps more importantly however, extracting the best out of Soward, Wallace and Idris will be key for the former Warriors coach. The first two in particularly will have plenty to prove after being punted from the Dragons and Broncos respectively last season.
Who Needs To Lift?
Jamie Soward. Our selection might be a little unfair, but let's be honest: unfairness has followed the little fella his entire career.
Forced to walk the plank in Wollongong, the headgear-wearing maestro has been handed the keys to the plush new car at Penrith with all the accessories he can handle. Armed with representative front-rowers, two professionals at dummy half, strike weapons outside and a halfback who is as close to a Ben Hornby you can find, the tools are all there for him. Let's see how he uses it.
How's Their Depth?
Arguably the best in the competition. Their premiership-winning Holden Cup side – now coached by Trent Barrett – still boasts the likes of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (a dark horse to finish the year at fullback), hooker Kierran Moseley and prop Chris Smith.
But their real depth can be found in their NSW Cup side, which they have taken back from feeder club Windsor. Under-20s Player of the Year Bryce Cartwright and his Holden Cup team-mates George Jennings and Isaah Yeo are all promising talents, while Isaac John, James Roberts, Adam Docker, Jeremy Latimore, and Matt Robinson give them enough experience to cover just about every position in the line-up.
NRL Fantasy Bankers
After a strong campaign last season, hooker Kevin Kingston ($345,300) starts 2014 as the Panthers' most expensive player in Fantasy, but he'll face stiff competition for game time this campaign against the dynamic James Segeyaro ($321,500). New recruit Elijah Taylor ($333,900) could be a steal if he plays 80 minutes a week at lock, but again the club is not short on depth in the back row. Meanwhile Jamal Idris ($290,700) might start the season slowly but if he lives up to his potential he could be one of the most devastating centres in NRL Fantasy.
After reaching the grand final with the Warriors in 2011, Cleary has done an admirable job in establishing a new culture at the foot of the mountains and it finally bore fruit last season. But now that he's been gifted with a more balanced roster, the bar has been raised and if they don't make the top eight this year, questions will be asked.
With so many new faces, don't be surprised if there are early teething problems. But the wheels should well and truly in motion by the time Origin rolls around, and a top eight birth will be the result.
1. Matt Moylan, 2. Josh Mansour, 3. Jamal Idris, 4. Dean Whare, 5. David Simmons, 6. Jamie Soward, 7. Peter Wallace, 8. Brent Kite,9. Kevin Kingston (c), 10. Tim Grant, 11. Lewis Brown, 12. Sika Manu/Tyrone Peachey, 13. Elijah Taylor. Interchange: 14. James Segeyaro, 15. Adam Docker, 16. Sam McKendry, 17. Nigel Plum.