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For & Against: Will Panthers go one better in 2021

The Panthers fell at the final hurdle in 2020. In the first For & Against for 2021, Penrith's chances of winning it all this year go under the microscope.

Will the Panthers be able to match their tremendous achievements of last year's regular season and then score one more win during the finals or will they again be left wondering what might have been?

Will the Panthers win it all in 2021?

For - NRL.com senior journalist Martin Lenehan

The Panthers have three major factors in their favour as they look to go one better in 2021 and deliver the club a third premiership ... youth, stability and Nathan Cleary.

From explosive 20-year-old centre Stephen Crichton to classy playmaker Jarome Luai, who turns 24 this month, and wingers Brian To’o (22) and Charlie Staines (20), the Panthers’ backline is brimming with gifted youngsters capable of turning a game on its head – as they did countless times during the 17-game winning streak which lit up the NRL in 2020.

Analysing the Panthers' 2021 draw

Calling the shots at No.7 is Cleary, already a veteran of 100 NRL games and three State of Origin series at the age of 23.

Laying the platform for Cleary to weave his magic are 23-year-old Liam Martin, who was one of the breakout stars of 2020, runaway train Viliame Kikau (25), recently re-signed prop Spencer Leniu (20) and Kiwi powerhouse James Fisher-Harris, who is hitting his prime at 25.

Apart from Staines and Leniu, these blokes were part of the grand final side beaten by Melbourne and they’ll be driven by a burning desire to make amends.

Panthers' top five tries of 2020

With Api Koroisau, Josh Mansour and Isaah Yeo providing a calming influence the Panthers have the ideal blend of youth and experience to be right in the mix again.

Skipper James Tamou and veteran Zane Tetevano have moved on but coach Ivan Cleary has plenty of quality young forwards at his disposal.

As Cleary plots his premiership campaign he has the luxury of knowing all his key men gained valuable big-game experience in 2020 and have a greater understanding of what it takes to win a grand final having come so close.

After the pain and disappointment subsided, the Panthers will have dissected the decider and worked out what went wrong as the clinical Melbourne outfit gave them the perfect blueprint for their next trip to the big one.

And make no mistake, the Panthers will be back in the big dance sooner than later.

There’s a sense of destiny around their supremely talented No.7 taking his team to a title and getting to share the moment with his father, just as John and Martin Lang did when the Panthers last tasted premiership glory in 2003.

All of Stephen Crichton's 2020 tries

Against - NRL.com journalist Paul Zalunardo

Defeat on grand final day was all that prevented Penrith’s 2020 campaign from being one of the best a club side has ever enjoyed.

During a regular season that included just one loss, the Panthers played a style of football that was impossible not to admire. Star players excelled and a host of others all made significant steps forward in their career progression.

They were blessed on the injury front and plenty of 50/50 incidents went their way.

The Storm had their measure in the final match of the Telstra Premiership season, but there was still plenty to be proud of.

The fact that almost everything went right and they still fell short is not a great sign for going one better in 2021.

The likes of Liam Martin, Stephen Crichton, Dylan Edwards, Jarome Luai and James Fisher-Harris enjoyed breakout years. Can we expect those rising stars to maintain that level of play for a second straight season or will there be some regression as is often the case before further steps forward come over the next few years?

The Panthers' 2020 season review

Even star duo Nathan Cleary and Viliame Kikau will find it hard to replicate the brilliance they displayed in 2020. They’ve got it in them, but the bar has been set extremely high.

Then there is the departure of captain and front-row stalwart James Tamou. He was the rock around which the Panthers built their team, a calming influence on a side brimming with youthful exuberance.

The youngsters around him will have matured a lot last year, but it remains to be seen how the absence of their captain will affect their forward rotation.

Fisher-Harris will probably need to outperform a stellar 2020 season in order to make up for the loss of Tamou.

With Tamou now at the Wests Tigers, lock Isaah Yeo looms as the man most likely to assume a leadership role among the forwards.

Expect Penrith to be a top-four team again this season, but as far as winning it all goes they will probably have to wait until 2022.

This group of players has a premiership (or two) in them, but repeating last year’s brilliant run to a premiership decider will prove elusive.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.

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