Panthers' 2014 Season Review

There is quite the collection of inspiring proverbs and photos of players past and present plastered across the inner walls of Sportingbet Stadium, all of which are designed to push players well beyond their motivational threshold.
 
There's an uplifting mantra from esteemed gridiron mentor Vince Lombardi, a hallway dedicated to Penrith's past champions, and one massive banner that isn't for the faint-hearted: Pain is weakness leaving the body. 

But there's one quote, one challenge, from their Dally M Coach of the Year Ivan Cleary, that you won't find painted on any kind interior. 

And that's because it was etched deep into their brains from the second he walked into the club: We'll finish where we deserve to finish. 

The non-believers? They finished with egg on their faces. But for the believers, Phil Gould's following, they finished just seven points shy of a breakthrough grand final berth. 

But it wasn't so much about where these Penrith upstarts ended their season as it was about how they went from the wilting Chocolate Soldiers to the NRL's can't be killed 'Walking Dead'. 

Many predicted an improved, but inconsistent, season from a new-look Panthers side that had no fewer than 11 recruits. Seven of them, including marquee man Jamie Soward and new co-captain Peter Wallace, suited up for their season-opening win over Newcastle in Round 1.
 
And initially unpredictability is what the pundits got, with the mountain men going win-loss-win-loss for the first two months of the year, and late signing Jamal Idris granted leave to deal with personal issues. 

But the red line was drawn in back-to-back road trips to Newcastle and Canberra in Rounds 9 and 10, with the Panthers going on to stake their claim as a genuine finals contender with a five-game winning streak that included a home blowout over another resurgent club in Parramatta in Round 12. 

By Origin time, the most improved side in the NRL had surged to a share of top spot. 

Then the proverbial excrement hit the fan. Back-to-back uninspiring defeats to defending premiers the Roosters and cellar-dwellers Cronulla in Rounds 19-20 were compounded by season-ending injuries to key men Bryce Cartwright, Elijah Taylor and Peter Wallace. 

Already without another attacking dynamo in Tyrone Peachey for the year, there were reasons aplenty for the doubters to pop their head up again and claim that an admirable season was over. 

But, led by a re-invigorated Jamie Soward and his ice-cool sidekick Matt Moylan, the Panthers won four of their last six to steal an unlikely double chance come September, where they performed the mother of all fairytale wins to sneak past the Roosters before pushing the Bulldogs all the way in the preliminary final. 

Where They Excelled: Dummy-half running, offloads, line breaks by opposition and errors by opposition. One of Penrith's strengths was their back three of Moylan, Josh Mansour and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, who led their team's charge up the field with big runs from deep inside their own end. All in all, their competition-high 460 runs from dummy-half, together with their 286 offloads (second in the NRL) was the perfect game plan to get their team upfield. Their defence was watertight for most of the year, too. No team forced as many turnovers as the Panthers (321), while the 89 line breaks they conceded was the second lowest mark by a team all year.
 
Where They Struggled: Missed tackles, and penalties. A total 843 missed tackles (4th most in the NRL) ensured their defence had to work overtime, while the 184 penalties they gave up (4th most) means they'll need to work on their discipline, also. 

Missing In Action: Local junior and former NSW representative Tim Grant was demoted to reserve grade for most of the year after his decision to move to South Sydney, while a mid-season injury to co-captain Kevin Kingston fast-tracked James Segeyaro's move into an 80-minute hooker. A breakthrough season looked well in the books when Tyrone Peachey strung 3-4 impressive outings before his year was ended by a pectoral injury.
 
Turning Point: Back-to-back road victories over Newcastle and Canberra gave them the impetus for a finals push, but it was the season-ending ACL injury to co-captain Peter Wallace that lit the fire under halves partner Jamie Soward, who used every inch of his experience and kicking prowess to almost propel Penrith to an unlikely grand final berth. 

Best Games: The heart-stopping games won on or after the siren against the Bulldogs (Round 2), the Broncos (Round 18), and Cowboys (Round 23) make for top viewing for the thrill-seekers. But none can top their gargantuan effort – minus half a dozen first-choice regulars – against the defending and minor premiers the Roosters in the first qualifying final when the Panthers reeled off seven points in the final three minutes for a stunning victory. 

Worst Games: Their only real blowout losses came against the Rabbitohs (Round 6) and Roosters (Round 19). The defeat to the lowly Sharks in Bathurst (Round 20) was also ugly. But the preliminary final loss to the Bulldogs will sting for some time, particularly given the possession and territory Penrith enjoyed for most of the second half. A chance gone begging.
 
Hold Your Head High: Jamie Soward. When players went down left, right and centre towards the back end of the year, there was plenty of reason for Penrith to turn in and focus for the next season. But Soward, who moved into the unfamiliar role of halfback after Wallace's injury, almost single-handedly willed his team into a long finals push. One of the comeback stories of the year. 

Conclusion: Penrith's ability to fight tooth and nail deep into the finals despite a weakened side shows you don't necessarily live and die by your casualty ward anymore. And by the looks of their success in the lower grades – they were Holden Cup premiers in 2013 and NSW Cup premiers in 2014 –they're in for the long haul. Minimal changes in the off-season will be another plus, with the preliminary finalists only to get stronger by the return of Wallace, Taylor, Peachey and Cartwright. 

SEASON STATISTICS
Wins: 16 (one in the finals).
Losses: 10 (one in the finals).
Position (after 26 Rounds): 4th.
Position (after the Finals): 4th.
Home Record: 9-3.
Away Record: 6-6. 
Longest Winning Streak: 5 (Rounds 9-14)
Longest Losing Streak: 2 (Twice, Rounds 19-20 and Rounds 24-25)
Players Used: 29 (fourth least)
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 90 (equal 7th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 110 (3rd least)