Penrith Panthers 2018 season review

Penrith's season started the way it flowed throughout the year, with the side chasing their tails more often than not in another pass-mark season that endured an injury crisis, a coach sacking and the emergence of a key figure in the pack.

The Panthers chased down a 14-0 deficit against Parramatta in round one, and it would prove to be the tale of their season with the club left without answers on how to correct their slow starts in games.

The rollercoaster trend continued throughout the year with a top-of-the-table triumph, record-breaking comebacks and get-out-of-jail performances at the death.

Before a ball was kicked the off-field talk surrounding the club was whether Anthony Griffin would survive the year with rumours persisting that his future was in doubt.

With every victory the talk would subside, but back-to-back losses would soon ignite the flare. Griffin was eventually given his marching orders in August, just four games before the finals, with Cameron Ciraldo taking over as interim coach.

The timing around his departure has been debated since Penrith's finals exit. Could they have gone deeper into the playoffs if Griffin saw out the year?

Another lucky escape against the Titans in Ciraldo's first game in charge was followed by back-to-back defeats, before a win against a depleted Melbourne team in round 25 and victory over the Warriors in the opening week of the finals gave the side some hope.

But that was as far as they would go with a 21-20 loss to Cronulla ending their season and leaving more questions than answers when it came to their future premiership prospects.

The club was forced to deal with a shocking injury toll in the opening half of the year which was compounded with the mid-season retirements of stalwart Peter Wallace and Tim Browne.

Further long-term injuries to Dylan Edwards, Nathan Cleary, Waqa Blake and Reagan Campbell-Gillard hampered them at stages, but Penrith's development kept them competing every week.

Best player

There were a few candidates with toilers James Fisher-Harris and Isaah Yeo leaders of the pack in 2018, while James Maloney was at his game-managing best at various stages throughout the season.

But it's hard to go past Viliame Kikau in 2018. The Fijian international was barely known of last season, struggling with ball control and playing an average of just 22 minutes per game.

But this season Kikau became a mainstay on the left edge to build a combination with James Maloney that would trouble any side in attack.

He finished the season with a whopping 105 tackle breaks and 1357 post-contact metres. His ability to offload (44) made him one of the most potent back-rowers in the competition and earned him selection in the 13-man Dream Team at the recent RLPA Players' Champion awards.

What-if moment

What if Nathan Cleary's field goal attempt against Cronulla hadn't gone wide? What if he kicked another one-pointer after that? Penrith had beaten Melbourne just three weeks earlier in the final round of the regular season and would have received a major confidence boost had they taken down the Sharks. Could they have done it again? Ultimately the club will look at their fifth-placed finish as a sub-par result given they were in the top four at various stages throughout the season.

The quote

"They wouldn't have won a premiership the way he was coaching," Penrith general manager Phil Gould said of Anthony Griffin on August 9. "He's got us nowhere near a premiership at the moment. I have utmost respect for Cameron Ciraldo, he's been a wonderful ally for Anthony Griffin. He has assisted that man loyally without question. 

"He did come to me and resign twice for the way he was treated by the head coach. Twice. Twice I talked him into staying. I'll just put that out there so everyone knows there is very much two sides to this story."

The exit of Griffin brought upon a bitter feud between he and Gould, with both going on rival television shows to explain their side of the story. It overshadowed a period for the Panthers when they pulled off two remarkable upset wins on the buzzer. While the players didn't seem too rattled by Griffin's departure, it added further distractions to the club as a whole.

Best win

The side's round 12 win over St George Illawarra had them believing they could match it with a top-ranked team after suggestions they were cruising through on the back of an easy draw. Penrith couldn't have put in a stronger performance against the then top-of-the-table Dragons at Panthers Stadium. It later saw James Maloney and Nathan Cleary chosen for the Blues thanks largely to the all-round performance.

Worst loss

There were a couple of home games Penrith would rather forget against Newcastle and Manly, but the loss that hit hardest arguably came in round 19 when Brisbane put 50 on them at Suncorp Stadium. Most say this was the writing on the wall for Griffin, with only get-out-of-jail performances to follow.

The side looked lethargic and disinterested with the Broncos jumping out to a 30-0 lead at half-time with Penrith's performances away from home raising concerns over their premiership credentials.

Roster rotation

Penrith are one of the few clubs who didn't go heavy with recruitment over previous years and have only added returning forward Tim Grant next season.

The big talking point remains around the future of Nathan Cleary, with NRL.com having reported that the Panthers halfback has agreed to terms on a new four-year deal with the club

Rumours of James Maloney wanting out of the club just one year into his current deal seem off the mark, however the Panthers will be quietly planning for Maloney's replacement over the coming years with retirement looming for the NSW five-eighth.

Penrith released local junior Corey Harawira-Naera to the Bulldogs in August following the emergence of Kikau on the edge, while Tyrone Peachey is off to the Gold Coast. The futures of Trent Merrin and James Tamou have also been questioned, which could mean more movement before the start of next season.

2019 outlook

The Panthers have lost more than they've gained in quality personnel but have an abundance of local talent and a "next person stands up" mentality that ensures the club doesn't need to go out and spend big.

After three consecutive semi-finals exits, one of the most talented teams in the league is still looking to take the next step. Before all that a decision around a new coach could dictate the club's chances next year.

After the October 25 decision by Michael Maguire to agree to terms with the Wests Tigers, it opened the door for Cleary to return to the Panthers.