Panthers 2015 season review
After last year's top-four finish the Panthers were always going to be disappointed with missing the finals this season, but considering their massive injury toll they did well to avoid the wooden spoon. They went close – narrowly missing last place thanks to a win over a desperate Knights outfit in Round 26 – and will be need a kinder run on the injury front in 2016 if they are to live up to their potential next time around.
Where They Excelled: It may be a risky tactic (see 'Where They Struggled') but the Panthers weren't afraid to chance their arm in attack this season, easily leading the competition for most offloads with 361 – almost 100 more than the next best team in that category. There were few other areas where Penrith genuinely "excelled", but their defence was actually stronger than their ladder position suggests – conceding fewer points than the fifth-placed Bulldogs.
Where They Struggled: Penrith's willingness to throw it around may have backfired with the Panthers finishing with the most errors of any team in the Telstra Premiership, tied with fellow strugglers the Titans. That poor ball control had a flow-on effect in other areas – the Panthers scored fewer tries than every NRL team bar the Dragons. They also struggled badly away from Pepper Stadium, with easily the worst away record in the competition (2 wins, 10 losses).
Missing In Action: Penrith suffered the worst injury toll in the NRL this season, with (deep breath) Peter Wallace, Jamie Soward, Matt Moylan, Jamal Idris, Elijah Taylor, Bryce Cartwright, Brent Kite, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Isaac John, George Jennings and Robert Jennings all ending the season in the casualty ward. James Segeyaro, Dean Whare, Josh Mansour, and Nigel Plum all spent significant time on the sidelines as well. Remarkably, the Panthers were forced to use 11 different halves combinations during the season, finishing the year with hooker Apisai Koroisau and back-rower Tyrone Peachey in the playmaking roles. The disruptions meant the team never had the chance to build momentum and it took its toll over the course of the season.
Turning Point: The Panthers were in the NRL's top eight until Round 12, when the wheels started to fall off their campaign. Star fullback Moylan was injured early in their Round 12 clash with Parramatta, Idris had already been out of the side for six weeks, and 2014 Kangaroos debutant Mansour had been sidelined since Round 7. Wallace made his return from injury in that match after his own six-week stint in the casualty ward, but would only stay fit until Round 20.
The match itself ended with a disappointing 26-20 home defeat to Parramatta, and was followed by heavy losses to the Storm and Bulldogs. As injuries continued to wreak havoc, the Panthers would win only four more matches for the rest of the season.
Hold Your Head High: Bryce Cartwright began to live up to the hype this season, becoming a regular fixture in a talented back row and leading the entire competition for offloads. Starring performances against the Bulldogs and Rabbitohs in particular gave fans a glimpse of just how good Cartwright could turn out to be. Hooker James Segeyaro made a brilliant start to the season as the Panthers enjoyed some winning form, with three tries inside the first month of the campaign, while fleet-footed back-rower Tyrone Peachey finished the season with some excellent attacking displays when asked to fill in at five-eighth.
2016 Crystal Ball: Trent Merrin's arrival will add experience and class to an already talented forward pack, albeit one that will be losing Brent Kite and Nigel Plum to retirement and Lewis Brown and Apisai Koroisau to Manly. The club's depth has been severely tested in the past two seasons but there are strong signs in the lower grades with the club's under-20s claiming the minor premiership in the Holden Cup.
Keeping the top 17 fit for once will be priority No.1 for Ivan Cleary's side next season. On paper the Panthers have all the ingredients – a strong playmaking spine, quality players in the pack and some excellent finishers in the outside backs. The roster might not be a match for the very best sides in the competition but a relatively injury-free run should get Penrith back into finals contention.
Conclusion: Injuries hit hard this year for Penrith, and few teams can cope with such an injury toll – but the Panthers will still be disappointed they didn't do a better job of handling things. The club's recruitment policy in recent years has put a premium on depth over superstar signings, but that depth wasn't enough to make them competitive this season. But with a fit-again Matt Moylan and Trent Merrin leading some promising young forwards there's every chance Penrith will be back in the top eight in 2016.
Coach Ivan Cleary said his club's injury toll this year was unprecedented.
"I haven't sat here and made excuses and I'm not going to start today, but there's definitely, there's a lot of reasons," Cleary said of Penrith's 2015 fortunes after their final game of the season.
"In 25 years in the NRL, I've never seen a season like we had. And that started in the pre-season, 20 players injured in the pre-season, and it ended up telling."
Home Record: 7-5
Away Record: 2-10
Longest Winning Streak: 2
Longest Losing Streak: 5 (Round 17-22)
Players Used: 32 (most in the NRL)
Tries Scored: 72
Tries Conceded: 80