Penrith Panthers Season Preview
It's been a little quiet on the western front.
The rugby league community has barely heard a peep out of the foot of the mountains over the summer, easily Phil Gould's quietest off-season since his arrival as godfather of the joint four years ago.
But after the season they had in 2014, that can only be a good thing.
This time last season coach Ivan Cleary was busily outlining ways to involve late insertion Jamal Idris into his plans, one of many high-profile acquisitions – including Jamie Soward, Elijah Taylor and Peter Wallace – his boss had recruited in what was a full-scale assault of the player market.
And before that were pre-seasons of manic and pain at the club, most notably the dramatic exits of local products Luke Lewis and Michael Jennings that had the locals all aflutter.
Fast forward to the year of the selfie stick, except Gould and his black army were seemingly in hiding, licking their wounds after an unexpected push deep into September that almost resulted in a grand final birth.
There were casualties of their unlikely run, however; a well-documented injury toll that prematurely ended the campaigns of a number of first-grade regulars, including their new skipper in Wallace.
But now just about everyone's back.
Kangaroos winger Josh Mansour had post-Four Nations surgery on a troublesome shoulder and could be a month away, while Idris addressed a semi-serious neck issue and hitman Adam Docker is probably feeling the after-effects of cutting some of the game's big fellas in half and have had disrupted preparations.
But poster boy Matt Moylan glided from Four Nations camp pretty much straight into the All Stars camp and looks poised for another free-wheeling season. And their rehab crew – particularly young gun Bryce Cartwright –missed out on holiday festivities to re-educate themselves on how to use their bodies again.
So all in all it's all been relatively still waters in Pantherland since they were knocked off by the Bulldogs in the penultimate game of the finals. But as season kickoff nears, so will the banging of the drums, and Rugby League Central has kindly marked the preliminary finalists to meet again on March 8.
After that, Penrith will have to contend with being contenders. And that's a status that'll surely be tested when they take on the fellow top-four opponents the Rabbitohs, Roosters and Sea Eagles twice during the year.
Gains and Losses
Gains: Apisai Koroisau (Rabbitohs), Tupou Sopoaga (Sharks)
Losses: Tim Grant (Rabbitohs), Kevin Kingston (retired), Ryan Simpkins (Titans), Wes Naiqama (London Broncos), Matt Robinson (Titans), Eto Nabuli (Dragons), Kevin Naiqama (Wests Tigers), Kierran Moseley (Titans)
What We Know
We know that if Soward is the meat to this Penrith recipe, then Moylan is the sauce. When the dynamic duo – together with the explosive James Segeyaro from dummy-half – are clicking, the mountain men are often within a field goal of winning the game. We also know that what the Panthers lack in star front-rowers, they make up for in metre-eating wingers like Kangaroo Josh Mansour, while they've also got a pair of centres and (healthy) back-rowers in Whare, Idris, Cartwright and Peachey that can burst a hole at any given moment. Defensively, no team forced more errors last year than the Panthers.
We don't know how long it'll take for their four key men in Wallace, Cartwright, Taylor and Peachey to hit full strength following their season-ending injuries, as well as the myriad of players who begin the season slightly underdone. The only other question is whether they have the consistency and belief to not only back up what they did last year, but go one step further.
Rookie To Watch
George Jennings. It's hard to believe that a knock to the elbow can keep a brother – particularly one of the Jennings calibre – out for 12 months. The promising centre copped a blow to his arm in the Auckland Nines last January, but the Panthers were so hellbent on keeping his season alive that they avoided surgery for as long as they could until it was about to fall off. But now the brother of former Panthers favourite and incumbent Kangaroos three-quarter Michael is ready to go and should get his first chance in place of Mansour in Round 1.
Room For Improvement
Discipline is key for this Panthers side. While their completion rates aren't too shabby, it's their missed tackles (5th most) and penalties (6th) that make their lives harder than they'd like it to be. Fix that up, and Penrith will easily enter the NRL elite.
Youngsters Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and rookie Kieran Moss provide cover for Moylan, while their depth on the flanks will consist of some more promising talents in the form of the two Jennings boys and Waqa Blake. Last year's five-eighth in their finals run, Will Smith, together with the return of Isaac John from his season-ending ankle injury, gives Cleary decent back-up in the halves, while premiership-winning Souths hooker Apisai Koroisau is more than capable to relieve Segeyaro should he need it. More of their under-20s graduates in Sam Anderson, Reagan Campbell-Gillard join Ben Murdoch-Masila, Tupou Sopoaga and Isaah Yeo as depth in the engine room.
Segeyaro ($448,000) and Mansour ($450,000) are Penrith's standout NRL Fantasy stars, with Segeyaro a chance of becoming one of the game's top scorers if he becomes a regular 80-minute player this season and tackle-break machine Mansour sure to pile on big scores again when he returns from injury. The club's most popular cheapies are young speedsters Waqa Blake ($128,000) and George Jennings ($128,000) who will both be pushing for a start in the outside backs.
Join the Panthers Verified Fantasy League - League code: 2726PFX5
The Panthers were Cleary onto something (sorry, had to) when they lured the former Warriors coach over in 2012, and were then smart enough to tie him down the moment the claw came out at the foot of the mountains in 2013. Now that the salary cap's in good nick, the local juniors are nicely flowing through, and they're playing champagne football. Cleary is signed until the end of 2017, which will take him to five years in the joint.
Unlike the mysterious black panther strolling in and out of the shadows at the foot of the mountains, Penrith can no longer lurk about as League's dark horse. Cleary's side will have a big target on their backs this year, as well as a more testing draw that will really clarify their status as a genuine premiership contender. Taking all that into account, we here at NRL.com predict the Panthers fighting for survival in the first week of the finals. NRL.com prediction: 7th.