Waqa Blake lines up the Cronulla defence on Sunday.

Panthers' backline puzzle not yet solved

It's the selection conundrum that most NRL coaches would love to have, but that doesn't make Panthers coach Anthony Griffin's job any easier as he looks to piece together his backline for Round 1 of the 2017 NRL Telstra Premiership.

Long-term injuries to internationals Dean Whare and Peta Hiku handed Waqa Blake and Tyrone Peachey an extended run as the side's first-choice centre pairing in 2016, while Josh Mansour and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak nailed down a spot on either wing with skipper Matt Moylan anchoring the side at fullback.

Kangaroos winger Mansour won't be fit for Round 1 after injuring his knee while on tour in the UK but with Whare and Hiku nearing full fitness, the competition for spots across Penrith's back five has never been more fierce – something Blake is acutely aware of as pre-season training approaches its mid-way point.

Blake – who made 20 of his 21 appearances for Penrith in the centres in 2016 – said the increased pressure that comes with such a wealth of talent in the squad has been a blessing in disguise and is driving him to improve.

Not concerned about whether he starts at centre or on the wing, his focus remains on making the cut for Round 1 in what shapes to be one of the NRL's most lethal backlines.

"Whatever opportunity comes up I'll just grab it with both hands," Blake told NRL.com at the announcement of Australia’s first all-weather synthetic rugby league field to be built by Blacktown City Council.

"It's sort of a good thing too, to have big depth in the backs. It just shows with international centres coming back and then you've got Tyrone Peachey who's had a killer year in his first year at centre. 

"It's a big headache for 'Hook' (Griffin), but it's another thing for me where I can work harder, challenge myself and learn from those big-time players.

"I came up through the 20s playing both positions (centre and wing) so I'm not too fussed. The past two years I've been playing mostly in the centres but like I said, whatever opportunity comes up, I'll take it."

 

 
Having previously started in the back row, lock, five-eighth and from the bench in his 67-game NRL career to date, there was little surprise when Peachey thrived at centre towards the back end of 2016. 

His form warrants inclusion somewhere in the Penrith 17, but the 25-year-old's versatility might mean his role will change again come Round 1, 2017. 

"I'm not too sure, really," Peachey told NRL.com when asked about his future position. 

"Wherever 'Hook' wants to put me, I'll play. I've just been training and trying to be as good as I can be at whatever position I train at. 

"It's up to 'Hook'. We're going to have such a competitive team in 2017, I think the trials are legitimate trials and everyone is legitimately playing for spots this year. It's going to be crazy when it comes around to Round 1, no one knows who's going to be where."

While Griffin's selection puzzle remains largely unsolved at this stage, one thing is for certain: if he can keep his group of motivated and talented speedsters fit and firing, the depth and quality of the players at his disposal will go a long way to ensuring another successful season at the foot of the mountains.