Penrith Panthers: 2018 NRL season preview
The dreaded favouritism tag that never sat well with the side is gone, but will the Penrith Panthers live up to their hype in 2018?
With the key addition of James Maloney in the halves to take the pressure off Nathan Cleary, can the two work together as a unit in 2018 or will they turn out to be the opposite and be a hindrance to each other and thus the Panthers chances?
As talk of player unrest continues despite denials from some at the club, team unison is likely to come into question, particularly if they fail to start the season positively.
Ultimately, Penrith's chances will undoubtedly fall on the shoulders of young half Nathan Cleary, who is tipped for NSW selection in 2018.
Life without two of their more flamboyant local juniors Matt Moylan and Bryce Cartwright.
The way the Panthers played towards the end of the 2017 season without their former skipper already suggests their departures are unlikely to slow the side down.
The addition of James Maloney looks a perfect fit on paper and brings vital experience to the halves as the side search for consistent success following two mixed seasons.
"He brings a great morale to the club and is a leading player," Panthers forward Trent Merrin said of Maloney's arrival.
"Just to have his maturity and laughter around the club puts the boys in a good spirit and you need that with the brutality sport that we play, you need the pressure valve to relieve it, and Jimmy definitely brings that."
There are no excuses from a draw perspective for the Panthers.
Anthony Griffin's side will avoid playing heavyweights the Melbourne Storm, Brisbane Broncos and Sydney Roosters until June, and only need to play them once in the regular rounds before the finals.
After last season's sluggish start, their opening two games are at home – a venue that proved to be a fortress late in the year with six wins in their final seven outings – as opposed to being on the road, where they noticeably struggled travelling away early, dropping five games.
Their biggest challenges of the season could come around Holden State of Origin time with a game against the Canberra Raiders in the nation's capital 48 hours after the opening game of the series, before another two-day turnaround for a clash with Cronulla around game three.
With a strong possibility the club could have multiple players in the Origin arena, Griffin and the coaching staff will need to manage the player's workloads accordingly during that period.
The stat that gives you hope
Along with the uncanny knack new recruit James Maloney has of guiding his new club to finals football with a seven-one career record, the Panthers were the 60-80th minute kings in 2017, conceding only 10 tries all season in the final quarter of games – easily the most dominant of any other side in the Telstra Premiership.
The statistic offers two things – physically, the side were well-conditioned under fatigue to defend their line in the latter stages of a game and despite results not going their way early on last season, their defensive attitude remained the same.
If the Panthers can continue to show a similar commitment while improving in attack, a top four finish should not be out of reach.
What you need to know NRL Fantasy wise
Nathan Cleary ($818,000) made the single biggest NRL Fantasy score in history last year and averaged an excellent 55 points a game, but his kick metres in general play could dip a little with James Maloney ($405,000) joining him in the halves. (Maloney himself generally concedes too many penalties and missed tackles to be a great Fantasy buy.) James Fisher-Harris ($296,000) has plenty of potential with a low starting price tag, particularly with the loss of Bryce Cartwright, while prop Viliame Kikau ($228,000) could be among 2017's most popular Fantasy cash cows.
Despite signing a two-year extension in October, all eyes will be on Anthony Griffin throughout the year as rumours continue to circle of player unrest despite club denials.
On paper, the former Broncos mentor has guided the side to the finals in his first two years at the club, but the player departures that have gone with it continue to float the idea not all is well at the foot of the mountains.
When there is smoke there is usually fire in rugby league, so a fast start by the Panthers could extinguish any of those theories in an instant.
If the club struggles in the early rounds, however, expect the external pressure on Griffin to intensify.
The Panthers have moved quickly in the off-season to secure the futures of Dylan Edwards, Tyrone May and Isaah Yeo on long-term deals, but they face decisions on two of their more experienced players with Peter Wallace and Josh Mansour free agents beyond the 2018 season.
Wallace, recently appointed skipper, could retire at the end of the year, while Mansour has indicated he's no certainty to remain at the club as he looks for long-term security.
Tyrone Peachey's future at the club is also under a cloud with confirmation he's received a lucrative offer from the Gold Coast Titans, while Nathan Cleary's contract has been a topic over the summer break with Penrith keen to lock in the halfback on a long-term deal before rival clubs can begin to negotiate with him in November.
The burning question
Can the Panthers live up to their hype and go to another level?
They boast a strong squad with a mix of representative players and youth but two seasons of scraping into the finals on the back of a late run isn't going to cut it.
Anything less than a comfortable top eight spot will be an underachievement after years of building, particularly after losing Moylan and Cartwright in the off-season.
You wouldn't call it a bolter given the hype surrounding him but Nathan Cleary is destined to play in a Blues jumper in 2018.
The NRL's highest point-scorer last season with 11 tries and 10 try assists, it is Cleary's temperament under pressure that gives him an edge over opponents who rely more on flair.
Whether new coach Brad Fittler opts for the young gun on the biggest stage will depend on Penrith's start and early season form but there is no denying it's not a matter of if with Cleary, but when he secures a NSW jumper.
The player you should follow on social media
Penrith have a strong contingent on social media, in particular Instagram, with entertaining pair Josh Mansour and Trent Merrin at the top of the tree to follow. Mansour's return from knee surgery in 2017 highlighted his profile, along with the birth of his baby girl in the off-season.
Merrin is particularly active with the Panther fan base, sharing photos with supporters and offering Q&A sessions at his own peril.
Jamie Soward says…
“Tyrone Peachey, easily one of the most gifted and talented players to ever watch or play with. Where will he fit in, in this Panthers side in 2018.
“Penrith Panthers finish 5th.”
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Dean Whare, Dylan Edwards, James Maloney, Jarome Luai, Josh Mansour, Nathan Cleary, Tyrone May, Tyrone Peachey, Tyrone Phillips, Waqa Blake, Sione Katoa, Corey Harawira-Naera, Corey Waddell, Isaah Yeo, Jack Hetherington, James Fisher-Harris, James Tamou, Jed Cartwright, Kaide Ellis, Moses Leota, Nick Lui-Toso, Peter Wallace, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Sam McKendry, Tim Browne, Trent Merrin, Viliame Kikau, Wayde Egan.
Note: These club squads are subject to change. Each club is required to submit 29 of their official 30-man playing squad to the NRL by March 1. The final spot in theses rosters can remain free up until June 30.