5 burning questions: Panthers
Can breakout star Matt Moylan and a host of promising rookies get even better in 2015, or will Penrith slip back to the pack?
1. Was Matt Moylan's breakout season a fluke?
Most people could've predicted James Segeyaro turning into a starting calibre dummy-half, and if you looked past his passionate temper tantrums, it really wasn't that hard to see Jamie Soward become the mature leader the Panthers hoped he would be either. But the emergence of second-year fullback Matt Moylan as the NRL's coolest kid on the block, on the other hand, turned the league upside down. Not only did he finish the year with a combined 36 line break and try assists – only Brett Stewart and Michael Morgan had more amongst NRL no. 1s – but the 23-year-old also got a mighty pay day too. His repeated late-game heroics showed he's no one-game wonder. But can he do it all again next year?
2. Was Penrith's entire season a fluke?
It's the question asked of the 2011 Warriors, 2012 Raiders, and 2013 Knights. All were perennial underachievers, and all ventured further into the NRL finals jungle than anyone expected them to. If anyone looked hard enough, they might still find the skeletons of premiership challengers still searching for the holy grail of a premiership. Even worse, none of them got anywhere near as close the following season. What makes the Panthers any different? For starters, the way they overcame the adversity of an injury toll thicker than Josh Mansour's erstwhile beard suggests they can. And secondly, the potential inclusion of Peter Wallace, Elijah Taylor, Tyrone Peachey and Bryce Cartwright at the business end is a game-changer as well.
3. How will they deal with the weight of expectation?
Now that they've come close to the NRL summit, it has to be asked: Can Penrith keep their footing in the cramped space up with the NRL heavies? And if they do, can they stay there, where the spotlight is brighter and the competition stiffer? There won't be many new faces over the summer – Rabbitohs grand final hero Apisai Koroisau is the only notable addition so far – so the biggest difference between the Panthers of 2014 and 2015 will be the expectation of at least replicating this year's effort, if not doing better. Life was as fun as it gets as the game's ultimate underdog this season, but they'll soon find out how it feels when the collar gets tighter and the formline now reads: top four material.
4. Do they have enough grunt up front?
If you look at the rest of this year's heavyweights, they were exactly that – top heavy. The NRL big three of the Rabbitohs, Bulldogs and Roosters all boasted bigger and angrier forward packs but Penrith's under-appreciated prop rotation of Brent Kite, Sam McKendry, Jeremy Latimore and Nigel Plum got the job done last season. But with the departure of long-time Panther Tim Grant to Redfern, do the Panthers need another frontman, say like Russell Packer or Willie Mason, to give them a premiership-winning pack?
5. Who replaces the under-rated work of general manager Phil Moss?
Penrith's renaissance as a football club is largely attributed to head honcho Phil Gould, and rightly so. But while the 1991 premiership-winning coach has received many of the accolades for bringing the Panthers back into NRL relevancy, the backstage work of his right-hand man in Phil Moss can't be overlooked, either. Reborn playmaker Jamie Soward has credited much of his career-best form to the locker room work, while their once problematic salary cap is believed to be in good shape. Now that he's in charge in Concord, who gets the keys to the big office now?