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Penrith Panthers 2019 season preview

Last year's semi-final will have the Panthers feeling like it was an opportunity missed but the Telstra Premiership window certainly remains open for a side that boasts experience and youth across the paddock.

The sacking of Anthony Griffin late in the year generated mixed results for Penrith's immediate success. Many questioned the timing of the coaching change, with Cameron Ciraldo acting as an interim coach for the final six weeks of the competition.

The Panthers will enter the season with a top four spot on their minds after a fifth-placed finish last year and will take plenty of positives into the new season, including the return of coach Ivan Cleary.

Highly regarded amongst the playing group, Cleary's arrival is only set to add further pressure for the coach and players to click from the start.

If they can, a top four finish isn't out of the question.

The 2019 outlook

What's new

Can you call Ivan Cleary new?

Cleary returns to the club after being let go in 2015. He's about the only major change to an otherwise settled playing squad with Malakai Watene-Zelezniak and Tim Grant also returning to their grass roots.

Panthers prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard.
Panthers prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

The Panthers have lost some depth with contract upgrades for Nathan Cleary and Reagan Campbell-Gillard but they boast one of the best junior nurseries in the game and proved last season they're more than capable to survive when injuries and representative commitments strike.

In Cleary's favour is the amount of players who remain at the club from when he last coached the side, while the juniors who are now established first graders were all coming through his systems three years ago.

The draw

Penrith have an evenly spread draw and will avoid playing last year's top eight teams like Melbourne, St George Illawarra and Brisbane twice.

The Panthers will have five home games in the opening 10 rounds, including their road trip to adopted 'home' town Bathurst for a sixth season.

Given four of their opening five games are against opposing sides that missed last year's finals, it's a perfect opportunity for Penrith to start the year well.

The Panthers will be without Origin stars in the round 12 clash against the Sea Eagles, while representative players like Cleary and James Maloney could only have four and two-day recovery periods to back up against the Roosters (round 13) and Titans (round 17) respectively.

Their last five games of the draw – two trips to Queensland, a game against the Roosters at the SCG and the hosting of Cronulla and Newcastle at Panthers Stadium – could be a tricky run home.

The stat that gives you hope

Fatigue can be difficult to measure but the high temperatures in Sydney's West is one of the side's biggest advantages when it comes to conditioning. The Panthers were notorious comeback kings in 2018, while they did the same towards the end of the 2017 season to race into the top eight.

Penrith's slow starts have been their biggest problem in recent seasons but no other team compares in the final quarter of games over the past two years – both in attack and defence.

If they can get off to starts and not chase points as much, they should back their second halves to drive them home.

What you need to know NRL Fantasy wise

Nathan Cleary ($769,000) was superb in the second half of 2018 and leads Penrith's Fantasy prospects, with Viliame Kikau ($682,000) also thriving in his breakout season. Hooker Sione Katoa ($400,000) and fiery forward Jack Hetherington ($325,000) have plenty of upside if they get more minutes in 2019.

The coach

Cleary has inherited a squad he spent years developing in his first stint at the club, including players like Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Isaah Yeo and Reagan Campbell-Gillard.

He also played a part in luring Viliame Kikau and developing James Fisher-Harris, Dylan Edwards and Sione Katoa.

Panthers back-rower Isaah Yeo.
Panthers back-rower Isaah Yeo. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

For the better part, he is safe (yes, even in this day and age) regardless of where the side finishes this season. However the pressure will build on the side if results don't go their way early.

Penrith are in a premiership window now – particularly with premiership-winning playmaker Maloney at the club – so the time is right for them to push further up the ladder.

Contract matters

All high-profile players at the club are tied up until at least 2020, giving the Panthers some breathing space in terms of retention.

The year looms as an important one for hookers Sione Katoa and Wayde Egan, who could battle it out for both a starting spot and long-term future at the club.

Penrith have relied on their juniors and will continue to be a development club, but could look elsewhere if they can't settle on a first-choice hooker. It is a position they don't generate too much impact from in comparison to a club like South Sydney with Damien Cook, or Cameron Smith at Melbourne.

New recruits Grant and Tyrell Fuimaono have joined on one-year deals and will be free agents by season's end.

The burning question

Can the Panthers handle the hype?

So much has been said about the Panthers being a far settled squad with Anthony Griffin's exit and Cleary's arrival but anything less than a top four finish could be rated as a failure after two seasons finishing fifth and seventh.

Panthers hooker Sione Katoa.
Panthers hooker Sione Katoa. ©NRL Photos

Adding further intrigue will be the relationship between Ivan and Nathan throughout the season in a new father-son experience for the pair.

If the Panthers are struggling early the scrutiny could begin and how the family duo handles the roller-coaster season ahead will be new territory for everyone.

Representative bolter

Isaah Yeo - the 2018 Panthers player of the year has been one of the more underrated players in the game over the past five seasons and is earmarked as the club's future skipper on a full-time basis.

While the Blues may be well-nourished with back-rowers, Yeo wouldn't look out of place coming off the bench to get the Panthers on the front foot.

He finished the season behind Viliame Kikau in most tackle breaks by a forward at the club. Yeo has an incredible knack of finding space and averaged 48.2 metres a game in post contact metres – second behind Kikau.

Player you should follow on social media

He's ditched the city life for the sights of Penrith for the first time in eight years so you can bet Josh Mansour will snap his new favourite Western Sydney hot spots over the course of the 2019 season via Instagram. Mansour is a busy man away from the paddock and doesn't mind the odd sledge towards current and former teammates on the social media platform.

View this post on Instagram

Embracing another summers day in the RIFF 🌡

A post shared by Josh Mansour 🧔🏻 (@joshmansour_) on

The quote

"On our day all of us think we can match it with the best but playing for 40 minutes you're never going to beat a side like the Roosters or Storm. Everyone's a year older and has that experience now. You never know until you start playing games and get tested. We're in a good position to make a run for it but have got to do all things right." - Nathan Cleary.

Arrows indicate players who signed after the submission of initial rosters on November 1, 2018.

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