Whare's long wait almost over
In all the excitement about a youthful Penrith team charging into the 2016 finals series on the back of exhilarating play and some of the best young players to emerge in recent memory, it's easy to forget one of the classiest centres in the game watched the whole thing from the sidelines.
Kiwi Test centre Dean Whare played just a solitary game for Penrith in 2016 – back in Round 2 – as calf injuries restricted his early involvement before a ruptured ACL suffered at training ended his season in April.
With his long and lonely rehab almost behind him, the 26-year-old has started doing some limited training with the main squad as he eyes a return to unrestricted training when the players return from their Christmas break.
"I'm about a month off from joining the squad. I get integrated a few days here and there to slowly come back, I'd say about a month off now and I can't wait to get out there," Whare told NRL.com at a members' barbeque event at Penrith Leagues club.
"I'll do the bulk of pre-season. It's been a long time since I've done a full pre-season. I'm usually on tours [with New Zealand] and stuff like that so it's a bit different, especially in this Penrith heat, but it's been good for us.
"I really enjoyed the pre-season so far. A few more weeks until Christmas and I can't wait to come back out after that and join the group."
With the eye-catching form of utility-forward-turned-centre Tyrone Peachey and emergence of young-gun Waqa Blake – who benefitted enormously from an extended run in the top grade – it's easy to forget coach Anthony Griffin was forced to pick a team each week missing two Test centres in Whare and fellow Kiwi Peta Hiku, who was also rubbed out for the season early on.
On his day, Whare can comfortably lay claim to being among the best few centres in the NRL and while refusing to give himself a rap, the former Sea Eagle praised the efforts of the players who shone in that spot for Penrith while he was sidelined.
"Watching the Panthers play all year was pretty tough then watching the Kiwis play was even tougher knowing you couldn't be there and go on tour and play these big games so it was definitely tough watching both," Whare said.
"But Peachey went well, he's good enough to play anywhere in the forwards and the backs and we always knew he could slot into any position and play well.
"Waqa just needed some game time to get rolling and once he got that he was on a roll all year. I was very happy for them both to play, me and Peta just watched them and helped them out as much as we could.
"They did an awesome job for the team all year; the team went pretty well bar the last game (a disappointing 22-12 Semi-Final loss in Canberra) and the guys got plenty of confidence.
"Especially the young guys like Nath Cleary. This year just gave the boys a lot more confidence and belief in their abilities."
The addition of Dragons hooker Mitch Rein – who played two seasons of NYC with Whare at the Dragons in 2008-09 – will also add crucial depth to the squad, according to Whare.
"Mitch Rein had a good career with the Dragons and I think coming here will spark something good for him and he's been training really well, he's one of the fittest in the team," Whare said.
"Last time I played with him was when I was at Dragons in Toyota Cup [in 2008-09]. I played with him for a few years and for him to come here now, he's a good signing."
With Whare and Hiku back it should partially alleviate the gutting loss of star winger Josh Mansour for the first half of the year.
Add in new recruits including premiership-winning Cowboys and Blues prop James Tamou plus Rein bolstering the squad and the invaluable experience gained last year to the talented younger players, plenty are tipping big things from Penrith in 2017. However Whare cautioned it was important to keep focused.
"You've got the full backline from last year plus me and Peta coming back so there's definitely some wing options if we need it and I think our depth is going to cover all options coming into next year," he said.
"We want to make the finals and be a tough team to play against but it's really up to us. The young guys with the confidence they got over the last year, they've got no worries about expectations and what we have to do. We've just got to worry about winning every game we can and make those finals."