Panthers 2017 season review
After a breakthrough 2016 season, expectation was high at the foot of the mountains for Penrith to go a few steps further and challenge for their third premiership.
Installed as title favourites to begin the year, their season got off to a terrible start with a 2-7 record as questions began to be asked over the side's attack through young halves pairing Te Maire Martin and Nathan Cleary.
The Panthers recovered to win 11 of their remaining 15 games with the inclusions of rookies Corey Harawira-Naera, Dylan Edwards and Tyrone May helping the cause, with Martin granted a release to join the Cowboys and skipper Matt Moylan moving to five-eighth.
A favourable draw and home ground advantage enabled the side to scrape into the top eight and exceed finals expectations by taking out Manly in the opening week of the finals series.
That would prove the final triumph for Griffin's men however with a loss to the Broncos bringing an end to a season that began with so much hope.
Where they excelled: Penrith's second halves were the best in the Telstra Premiership. Griffin's men conceded only seven points in the final 20 minutes of their last eight games of the season, including just one point against the Broncos. The Panthers also managed to grind out victories in close battles, winning seven games by eight points or less.
Where they struggled: They found life difficult against sides in the top eight and that in the end was their downfall, winning just two games against finals sides in the regular season and falling short against all sides higher than fifth on the ladder throughout the year. In contrast to their ability to finish strong, the Panthers struggled get off to a good start in games, more often than not trailing early. Discipline and a high error rate were also areas the side struggled with and highlighted their inexperience particularly around the ruck. The last-tackle options were a concern with the Panthers caught out on a number of occasions running the ball on the last or coming up with the wrong option.
Missing in action: The Panthers may not have lost a player to a season-ending injury or suffered a major blow to their campaign, but it was a year of niggling minor injuries that continued to disrupt Griffin's men right up until the end. Former Kangaroos winger Josh Mansour missed the opening half of the season, while Bryce Cartwright, Trent Merrin and James Fisher-Harris were also in and out of the side through injury. A broken jaw ended Leilani Latu's season prematurely, while the Moylan saga was compounded with the Panthers skipper battling a hamstring complaint in the final eight weeks of their campaign.
Turning point: Mark it down for Round 10 against the Warriors at Pepper Stadium – a result that proved season-defining in many ways. The Panthers trailed 28-6 at half-time but pulled off their second biggest comeback in club history to keep their season alive after losing seven of their first nine clashes. Griffin's decision to move Moylan to five-eighth and blood Edwards at fullback shortly followed and proved to be the change that was required.
Hold your head high: Reagan Campbell-Gillard. It was a barnstorming season from the Panthers front-rower that should go close to earning him a spot in Mal Meninga's Australian side for the World Cup. His performance against the Broncos in the semi-finals was dominant and he averaged 129 metres per game after a mid-season switch to the bench. In many ways the 24-year-old outshone new recruit James Tamou up front, but Tamou too finished the year well and never missed a game for his new club. Cleary also produced a solid full season on the back of a dream debut year in 2016 and will be better for the experience of playing finals football.
2018 crystal ball: A few questions need to be asked to determine what next season could hold. Will Moylan remain at the club? And is Tyrone May's ACL injury going to affect the Panthers' start? Speculation continues to circle Moylan may have played his last game for the Panthers, but the injury to May could also force the club to stand firm after already letting Martin take time off earlier this season. All that said, the side will head into next year without the burden of expectation compared to 12 months prior and that should work in their favour.
Conclusion: Premiership favouritism is often a tag that teams struggle with and the early pressure showed with Penrith chasing their heels. Their performance on the field reflected in many ways their season in the end – a slow start but a strong finish. In a season built up with hype, the Panthers will feel in one sense like they've underachieved after last year's build-up, but can also consider it another year of development.
Home Record: 8-4
Away Record: 5-7
Longest Winning Streak: 7 games (Round 5-10)
Longest Losing Streak: 5 games (Round 18-25)
Players Used: 28
Tries Scored: 87
Tries Conceded: 85