Injured Panthers rejoin teammates
The Panthers became the 16th and final NRL team to begin preparations for the 2015 season when they gathered at Penrith HQ for day one of their pre-season on Monday, with their huge contingent of injured stars slowly returning.
The Panthers lost a number of key players to serious, season-ending injuries late in 2014 to cruel their finals hopes but all of those players are back in various levels of training now and each is hopeful of having enough of a pre-season to line up in Round 1, 2015.
After falling one game short of the 2014 grand final, Panthers coach Ivan Cleary gave his battered mountain men a massive eight weeks off – the longest of any team in the competition.
"I think it was [trainer Ronnie Palmer] that got us another week there. I think it was just the right amount of time to have off. Everyone come back in pretty good nick. It could be the way of the future," club skipper Peter Wallace told NRL.com.
"We had a quick chat [Monday] morning - we've only got four weeks till Christmas. So we've got to make sure we get everything out of training leading up to it.
"It's probably the shortest pre-season that I'd done in my whole [career]. We had a good break, and we probably needed it. And we've got four weeks now till we get another break."
Wallace and boom second-rower Bryce Cartwright – who each missed the back end of the year due to ACL and ankle injuries respectively – confirmed their unavailability for the pre-season All Stars fixture and the Auckland Nines early next year.
They will likely be joined by their rehab roomies Tyrone Peachey (pectoral) and Elijah Taylor (ACL), who have been slaving away in recovery a fortnight before the rest of the squad arrived this week.
"I know us four that had season-ending injuries were very keen to have everyone back. We've been in there a fair bit. It's good to be back with all the boys, we're sick of seeing each other every day," Wallace said.
"We've been in every day for the past two weeks to get physio and rehab. It's good to see all the boys back and there's a good feel in the place again."
The Panthers halfback ran for the first time on Monday since suffering that ACL injury against Cronulla at Bathurst in Round 20 and, like the rest of his recovering team-mates, hopes to be fit for the season-opener.
"It was just on the treadmill and it all went well. Providing it pulls up alright, I'll spend the rest of this week on there and hopefully be back on the field by the end of next week and doing straight line stuff," he said.
"I'll probably be back mid-January, just a couple of weeks after the Chrissy break providing there's no setbacks. No Nines or All Stars for me. Hopefully I'll get a bit of the last trial in, if not the whole game. That's the goal, to be right for round one."
Penrith's top 17 remains largely untouched from the one that soared to the penultimate game of 2014, and will be bolstered by the return of their injured quartet as well as Rabbitohs grand final hooker Apisai Koroisau and Sharks forward Tupou Sopoaga.
Wallace, however, did express concern with the club's depth, which was a major factor in their renaissance this calendar year.
At least 11 members of their NSW Cup grand final winning-side have moved on, including South Sydney prop Tim Grant and retired veteran Kevin Kingston.
"We're pretty much going to have the same team on the park as last year. [But] I suppose if anything, we've lost a little bit of depth from the boys at NSW Cup and a little bit experience there too," Wallace said.
"The depth was huge. I said at the start of the year how good our depth was and unfortunately we had to use it all. In saying that, if it wasn't there, I don't think we would've gone as far as we did.
"So I suppose we've lost a little bit there, but in saying that we've got a couple of good kids that have come up too. A few of the young blokes from the [under-]20s have come up, and even younger – the youngest Jennings [Robert] is training with us now and he's looking really good."