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Penrith Panthers 2020 season preview

No one could've predicted the turmoil ahead for the Panthers in 2019 when it was announced Ivan Cleary would return as coach.

A series of off-field incidents followed with general manager Phil Gould's resignation after eight years at the helm, and then came the defection of home-grown stars Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Reagan Campbell-Gillard to rival clubs.

After two years of finals appearances, the Panthers went through the highs and lows and a mini rebuild along the way, blooding a fresh crop of emerging stars.

The club will be hoping the short-term pain turns to long-term gain despite many writing the squad's chances off before a ball has been kicked.

The arrival of premiership-winning prop Zane Tetevano and Sea Eagles rake Api Koroisau could prove the vital piece to an evolving puzzle.

The 2020 outlook

What's new

A hooker – and a creative one at that. Api Koroisau's return to Penrith adds a fresh attacking structure out of dummy half, something they haven't had since James Segeyaro's flash of brilliant form in 2014.

The departure of veteran five-eighth James Maloney leaves a gaping hole in terms of experience and creativity so the Panthers will need to change their attack and utilise Koroisau's services in both departments.

Trent Barrett's arrival as an assintant coach is also expected to benefit emerging halves Jarome Luai and Matt Burton, while Tyrone May should be available for selection in round five.

Tamou confirms captaincy and reacts to captain’s challenge

The draw

The Panthers have a difficult start with clashes against the Roosters, Storm and Raiders inside the first five weeks of the competition.

Their season opener with the Tricolours could come at a good time with the defending premiers preparing for life without Cooper Cronk and Latrell Mitchell.

During the representative period, Penrith will host the Knights four days after Origin I, while they'll face another big challenge around Origin III with away trips against the Broncos and Sharks.

Ivan Cleary's men finish the regular season with a friendly five of their last seven games played at home.

The stat that gives you hope

The Panthers used the most players in the competition with 33 at an average age of 24.5 - the second youngest in the competition - while handing NRL debuts to nine players.

That they were able to turn around a difficult off-season plagued with scandal, along with a six-game losing streak, and come out the other side with promise is enough to leave fans knowing the side won't give up regardless of the situation. 

The bounce back factor is also on the agenda with the Panthers not missing back-to-back finals series since 2013.

Cleary hopes to put smiles on faces

The coach

Ivan Cleary goes into the 2020 season with a far more settled squad after last year's summer of turmoil but the Panthers coach will feel slightly under the pump should his men fail to fire.

Cleary returned to the Panthers with a weight of expectation and is contracted until the end of the 2023 season.

His coaching record sits at 45.1 percent at the foot of the mountains across two stints with one finals series under his belt.

Soward's Say: 2020 Panthers

What you need to know NRL Fantasy-wise

"Nathan Cleary ($785k) is already a Fantasy superstar – he's scored an astronomical 120 points in a single game twice – but the departure of James Maloney could mean even more playmaking duties fall to Cleary this year. Jarome Luai ($249k) looks like a steal as Cleary's new halves partner, and Api Koroisau ($493k) is one of the best bargains of 2019 with a big-minute hooker spot available at Penrith after he played closer to 40 minutes a game at Manly." - Lone Scout

Five key match-ups of the Panthers' 2020 draw

Contract matters

Penrith's management will have a decision to make around starting players James Tamou, Dylan Edwards and Brian To'o, who are all off contract at season's end.

Tamou, 31, has expressed a desire to remain at the club after taking the mantle from James Maloney as the most experienced player in the line-up with 245 NRL appearances.

At the other end of the spectrum, local juniors Caleb Aekins, Dean Blore, Shawn Blore, Jed Cartwright and Kaide Ellis are also without deals beyond the 2020 season.

The burning question

Can Nathan Cleary steer the ship without James Maloney?

Cleary has come under the spotlight over the past two seasons for essentially taking a backseat to Maloney in the halves, serving up just nine try assists compared to Maloney's 16 in 2019.

With Maloney gone, Cleary will be the senior man alongside either Jarome Luai, Tyrone May and Matt Burton.

Cleary showed he was more than capable to handle life without Maloney with a strong performance against Cronulla in round 21 last season.

Cleary ready to lead

Breakout player to watch

The departures of Reagan Campbell-Gillard (Parramatta), Sam McKendry (released) and Tim Grant (retirement) leave the Panthers light in the engine room, despite the arrival of Zane Tetevano from the Roosters.

Spencer Leniu had a taste of first grade towards the end of last season and will be looking to grow his five-game tally.

The right judges in Sydney's west predict big things for the NSW under 20s and Australian schoolboys forward and 2020 may just be his season to cement a spot in the 17.

The quote

"I know things are ruled by wins and losses but we'll just be playing better. Our style will be a bit different – the main thing I'm working on is teamwork, leadership, connection. We are much further ahead from where we were last year and it takes a bit of time for guys to get used to it." – Ivan Cleary