Penrith Panthers season preview
No one quite knew what to expect from Penrith last year. Sure, they were brimming with plenty of talent, but could their mix of youth and experience take them far against more established competition? The answer in 2016 was a resounding 'yes' as they advanced to Week Two of the finals, only to fall to the Green Machine in Canberra. Now Anthony Griffin's men are a year older and ready to make the leap from entertainers to genuine contenders with the Panthers joint-favourites with most bookmakers leading into the new season.
Gains and losses
Gains: James Tamou (Cowboys), Tim Browne (Bulldogs), Michael Oldfield (Rabbitohs), Darren Nicholls (Redcliffe Dolphins), Mitch Rein (Dragons), Jed Cartwright (Titans).
Losses: Ben Garcia (Catalans), Chris Smith (Sydney Roosters), George Jennings (Eels), Zak Hardaker (Castleford), Jeremy Latimore (Sharks), Suaia Matagi (Eels), Andrew Heffernan (Hull KR), Chris Grevsmuhl (released), Robert Jennings (Rabbitohs), Will Smith (Eels), Andy Saunders (Bulldogs).
What we know
Consistency was an issue last season, with the Panthers involved in 16 regular season games that were decided by eight points or less. Eight of those games resulted in victory, while eight ended up in losses, including a golden point defeat to the Warriors. With more experience under their belts, expect them to close out games before the 80th-minute mark in 2017.
The Panthers will head into the new season without several first-choice players with Josh Mansour, Sam McKendry and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak all battling knee injuries, although DWZ's is less serious. That aside, they are perfectly placed to make a premiership assault. They started the pre-season by surprising everyone – including themselves – by making the final of the Auckland Nines with an under-strength side. The Panthers have followed that performance with back-to-back trial wins over the Bulldogs and Eels, with a glut of hopefuls – as well as new recruit James Tamou – playing starring roles.
Their high-risk style of footy saw them make more offloads (350) than any other side in 2016, but they also were the third-worst offenders when it came to errors (254). Based on their pre-season form, don't expect any change to their razzle-dazzle style of play.
Where to begin? Tyrone May carried his outstanding Holden Cup form into the Auckland Nines and was one of the best players throughout the tournament. A utility player brimming with talent, May can play in the halves or at lock and could come into contention at some point during the year. Big man Viliame Kikau had an injury-disrupted 2016 but is primed for a return to action. The former Cowboys prop scored 21 tries in the 2015 NYC season and is a scary sight for opposition defences. But the man most likely to get a crack in first grade is Dylan Edwards. The livewire fullback made his NRL debut last year and is in line to replace the injured Josh Mansour on the left wing. The Junior Kangaroo is an attacking weapon and showed at the Nines he is equally adept in defence.
Few teams have the luxury of naming a reserve grade side that could more than match it with a few NRL teams, but that's the enviable position the Panthers find themselves in this year. Spoilt for choice, Griffin has a seemingly endless supply of proven talent at his disposal as well as exciting Holden Cup prospects ready to follow in Nathan Cleary's footsteps. Even with McKendry, Mansour and Watene-Zelezniak out for the start of the season, Griffin has plenty of options – including international-calibre players – to choose from.
He was the king of the cash cows last year, but Nathan Cleary ($502,000) won't come cheap if you want him in your team in 2017. His halves partner last season, Bryce Cartwright, is roughly $20,000 cheaper and his dual position status makes him a tempting prospect. New recruit James Tamou ($399,000) has looked the goods early on and could be a key cog in Penrith's front-row rotation with Sam McKendry facing a lengthy stint on the sidelines, while Trent Merrin ($530,000) will be worth every penny if he maintains his near 56-point average from last season. Dean Whare ($205,000) appears under-priced following an injury-disrupted 2016, while Dylan Edwards ($143,000) will be a popular pick if he's chosen on the wing as cover for the injured Josh Mansour.
The bulk of Penrith's current squad weren't born when the Panthers claimed their first premiership in 1991. Now they're poised to create their own piece of history. If Nathan Cleary can avoid the dreaded second-year syndrome, if Trent Merrin plays like he did last season, and if they can finally stay injury free, then 2017 looms as a huge year for the mountain men. Should their young guns handle the weight of expectation, lock them in for a top-four finish. What happens next is up to them. Oh, and for some added value, Matt Moylan will claim his first Dally M award. You heard it here first.