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Panthers 2021 season preview: Generation Next to keep team purring

Penrith were the surprise packets of the 2020 Telstra Premiership season and went within 80 minutes of claiming the game's ultimate prize. 

A new year will bring about new challenges for Ivan Cleary's side, which will look slightly different a few months on after tasting grand final defeat. 

Every team in the NRL will be on high alert for last year's minor premiers as they go from being the hunters to the hunted. 

The scary part for the opposition is they showed no signs of slowing down despite failing to get over the final hurdle.

What the Panthers learned from their big-game experience will be fascinating viewing as the year goes on. 

Despite several departures in the off-season, you have to respect that the premiership window remains open for the Panthers after last year's efforts.

The 2021 outlook

What's new 

Quite the opposite with the club's most experienced players departing and taking with them over 700 games of NRL experience.

Penrith's mission to fend away rivals and re-sign the likes of Charlie Staines, Jarome Luai and Stephen Crichton has come at a cost with former captain James Tamou, fan favourite Josh Mansour, Zane Tetevano and Dean Whare exiting in recent months.

The Forbes Ferrari: Staines' six tries in two matches

The club has lured a host of journeymen and fringe players in return (Robert Jennings, Scott Sorensen, Paul Momirovski and Matt Eisenhuth) and will be heavily reliant on youth to get them over the line.

The Draw

The Panthers recorded an NRL.com index score of 197 when the 2021 draw was announced in November, analysing them as having the fourth "easiest" draw in the league based on data.

Clashes against the Bulldogs (round two), Storm (round three) and Wests Tigers (round 13) will be among their best match-ups of the season.

The period post-Origin looms as the most challenging with four away trips against heavyweight outfits the Storm, Roosters, Rabbitohs and Eels.

Burning Question

Can the Panthers replicate their 2020 efforts and go one better this season?

Few had the Panthers in their top eight last season, let alone predicting they'd be one of the two teams battling it out for the title. This won't be an issue in 2021 but how the Panthers handle the external pressure and expectation will be new territory for the young side.

Raiders coach Ricky Stuart admitted his side tried too hard at stages throughout last season to find the spark that got them into the 2019 decider. The Panthers will be wary of the same and will practically need to wipe last year's efforts clean.

Stat that gives you hope 

No team wins 17 games in a row in modern sport unless they're doing multiple things right and it was no different for the Panthers. The fact the team was consistently producing performances with a youthful squad will hold them in good stead in 2021.

The Panthers' 2020 season review

Their finals performances, apart from their first half against Melbourne in the grand final, are also going to benefit the team under pressure. Although they'll be more targeted by the opposition, there is enough strike power across the paddock to ensure they won't revert back to any predictable ways.

Breakout player

Charlie Staines needed just two NRL games to convince the club he was the next big thing to come out of Penrith and worthy of a contract extension.

With his hamstring woes now behind him, Staines has a full season on the right edge to establish himself as one of the best outside backs in the game.

The Forbes junior will need some help with Brent Naden and Tyrone May among those vying for the right centre spot next to him.

Contract matters

The Panthers have seven players left off contract in 2021 after locking in young guns Jarome Luai and Stephen Crichton to long-term deals before round one.

They're also chasing another front-rower to bolster their middle after losing James Tamou and Zane Tetevano in the break.

Spencer Leniu's retention was a positive in December, while Isaah Yeo re-committed earlier this month.

Yeo's re-signing may have a flow-on effect for fellow back-rower Kurt Capewell, who is also without a deal beyond this year and could be in the sights of rival clubs for 2022 after starring for Queensland last November.

With the club focused on tying down Luai and Crichton first, the rest will follow after that.

Fantasy 

There aren't many bargains at Penrith this year after their stunning regular campaign in 2020. Nathan Cleary ($973k) is the most expensive player in Fantasy and the safest bet for captain.

Isaah Yeo ($781k) was a revelation last year as a big-minute middle forward, while Moses Leota ($452k) and Spencer Leniu ($307k) could benefit from increased roles after James Tamou's exit.

The Quote

"You're lying in bed and thinking about the opportunity that was right in front of you. Grand finals rarely come around and the biggest prize was right in front of us. We'll hold on to that feeling and use that for this year and many years to come."

- Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai on last year's grand final defeat leading into the 2021 season

Panthers pivot Jarome Luai.
Panthers pivot Jarome Luai. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

The good, the bad and the likely

The good: Another top-four finish and pushing for a second grand final appearance in as many years. It's not out of the question with the belief at the club at an all-time high. 

The bad: Expectation is high in Sydney's west, which hasn't always worked well for the Panthers in the past. Things would have to go horribly wrong for them to drop off so badly, and 12 months earlier they were indeed in that position. It's unlikely, but anything less than a top-eight spot will be a massive step backwards and have many questioning whether their 2020 run was in fact just a one-off achievement. 

The likely: Last year's efforts were an incredible feat and unlikely to be achieved again any time soon by another club, so the Panthers need to wipe it from their memory banks and move on. There is no shortage of confidence around the Panthers playing group but you can also never underestimate the importance of experience. You'd be brave to write them off altogether with a 5th-8th place finish a safe bet.

Panthers in 2021

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