Panthers lock Trent Merrin says for all the talk of Penrith building a strong team for the future, there's nothing stopping the in-form Panthers claiming the 2016 NRL Telstra Premiership title.
Merrin has been in career-best form since his high-profile switch from the Dragons at the end of 2015 and has emerged as a genuine leader in an inexperienced forward pack.
The 26-year-old recently inked a two-year contract extension with the Panthers despite already being signed through to 2018, meaning he is now locked down at the foot of the mountains until the end of 2020.
With the new-look side in a rich vein of form and heading into a tantalising semi-final against the equally as exciting Canberra Raiders, the 2010 premiership-winner says he is loving his footy more than he ever has.
"I've never enjoyed it as much as what I am now," Merrin said.
"I believe we can [win this year] for sure and I've got total belief in that and I know that everyone else in the team does too.
"Everyone keeps talking about the future, but we're all looking at the present and we're preparing for the present."
Pressed about his 2010 premiership season with the Dragons, Merrin added: "That was a great year, but I was a pup then too.
"I was only learning the tricks of the trade in 2010 when I was coming through grade. I think just having that belief from the coaching staff to let me play the style of footy that I enjoy playing.
"And being around some great players here, every day is great at training. We all have a laugh, we all rip in and we all know when to turn on and turn off. The best thing too is I'm learning more and more each day about myself. I'm challenging myself every day. It's been a great move for me. It's definitely been a fantastic year."
The playing group is clearly enjoying themselves both on and off the field and Merrin is central to both.
"We love it. We're a tight bunch of men. Every day we come into training, there's always something new," Merrin said.
"You've always got a clown carrying on. The boys are laughing on the training paddock and everyone enjoys what we do. We're really humble with being able to play rugby league. We don't take it for granted. We're absolutely enjoying it and when you've got players scoring full-field tries, why not be happy?"
With his leadership credentials on show every week, Merrin said the best part is he is still learning about himself as he goes.
"We do have a young team and an inexperienced pack. The best thing is I'm learning more and more about myself and I think that can only be good for the team too," he said.
With rookies and less experienced forwards like James Fisher-Harris, Isaah Yeo, Sitaleki Akauola, Chris Grevsmuhl and the now-injured Reagan Campbell-Gillard all hitting new heights on a regular basis, Merrin has been one of the senior players to guide the way through a late-season surge that has seen the Panthers excel not only in attack but crucially, in defence.
"The best thing is these young blokes are so humble and so level headed that they're willing to listen and to learn and prepare the best they can," Merrin said.
"That's the best thing you can do, especially this far into a season in the finals, if you start listening to people on the outside and start letting your head drift away that's when you start to fall down but these boys are willing to learn and listen and they really are brutal with their preparation."
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