Penrith Panthers season preview
From one game short of a grand final appearance to a game short of the wooden spoon, it has certainly been a rollercoaster ride for Panthers fans over the last couple of seasons. Was 2014 a flash in the pan or was 2015 an abomination due to an unprecedented injury toll?
There is no doubting the talented roster building at Penrith – they have one of the youngest and exciting squads in the NRL competition and will be pumped up for the new season. But can they return to the lofty heights of 2014, or are they destined for a mid-table finish?
Gains and losses
Gains: Trent Merrin (St George Illawarra Dragons), Zach Dockar-Clay (Parramatta Eels), Benjamin Garcia (Catalan Dragons), Andrew Heffernan (Canberra Raiders), Viliame Kikau (North Queensland Cowboys), Te Maire Martin (Wests Tigers), Sitaleki Akauola (Wests Tigers), Suaia Matagi (Sydney Roosters), Peta Hiku (Manly Sea Eagles)
Losses: Lewis Brown (Manly Sea Eagles), Brent Kite (retirement), Apisai Koroisau (Manly Sea Eagles), Nigel Plum (retirement), Kieran Moss (Parramatta Eels), Sika Manu (Hull), David Simmons (retirement), Shaun Spence (retirement), Ben Murdoch-Masila (Salford), Isaac John (released), Sam Anderson (released), Adam Docker (retirement), Jamal Idris (released)
Hard-working forward Trent Merrin and classy outside back Peta Hiku are the headline signings for the Panthers while exciting young recruit Te Maire Martin is pushing hard to displace experienced halves Peter Wallace or Jamie Soward from the starting side. The Penrith outfit has lost their fair share of regular first-graders though with Lewis Brown, Brent Kite, Apisai Koroisau, Sika Manu, Nigel Plum, Adam Docker and David Simmons all leaving the foot of the mountains.
What we know
A fully fit Panthers roster boasts a host of bona fide superstars. The back five all have the potential to break a game open with individual brilliance, James Segeyaro is a former Dally M hooker of the year who has grown in stature in recent seasons, while their forward pack can mix it with the best in the competition. Trent Merrin will also add a lot of punch to a mobile and skilful pack.
How do you prepare for the injury curse? In 2014 the Panthers charged towards a top-four finish and were one game away from the grand final despite a host of injuries cutting through their playing ranks. Last season a horror run saw the Panthers narrowly avoid the wooden spoon in a disappointing campaign plagued by injuries. The club, players and fans will all be hoping for a smoother year to give the team a decent shot at finals football.
Te Maire Martin has a lot of buzz around him and there are suggestions new coach Anthony Griffin will bite the bullet and give him the nod in the halves ahead of experienced campaigners Soward or Wallace for Round 1 this year. It would be somewhat of a gamble, but Martin is impressing everybody with his skills.
The Panthers depth has been severely tested over the last couple of seasons and might again be stretched with a lot of reliable players retiring or leaving the club. The inherent benefit in the squad is that there are a lot of players who can cover multiple positions if required and that could come in handy during the course of a long campaign.
James Segeyaro emerged as a Fantasy gun early last season, an 80-minute hooker with the ability to rack up a lot of tackle breaks and try assists. Should play more game time now that back-up rake Api Koroisau has moved to Manly.
Trent Merrin will start the season as the club's most expensive NRL Fantasy player, following yet another strong year at the Dragons. Merrin didn't play the full 80 minutes in any games last season but it hardly mattered, with the NSW forward breaking the 80-point barrier three times in the opening five rounds – including twice from the St George Illawarra bench.
Former Broncos coach Anthony Griffin is back behind the clipboard replacing Ivan Cleary at the foot of the mountains. Griffin has shown he is not scared to take chances on young stars and give them an opportunity in the toughest rugby league competition on the planet. Any new coach at a club will always come under heavy scrutiny, but Griffin should be allowed to ease into the role and work with the great talent on offer.
They are possibly one of the hardest teams to predict in the whole competition. They have the talent to beat most sides, but can they find the consistency that is the difference between a finals contender and an also-ran? Time will tell, but we are predicting they'll be near enough to the top eight if good enough at the backend of the year.