2017 NRL Season Preview Penrith Panthers
2016 Review - 2016 proved a successful one for the Panthers finishing in 6th position and making it to the second round of the finals under new Head Coach Anthony Griffin. The Panthers were the cardiac kids of 2016 with a very young and exciting roster, having 16 of their 26 games decided by 8 points or less throughout the season. Where the Panthers excelled last season was in attack, with the 4th most points in the NRL with plenty of ball movement and second phase football. The Panthers had an astonishing 327 off loads across the season which was clearly the most in the NRL with Bryce Cartwright (75) and Trent Merrin (56) leading the way.
With Matt Moylan getting back to his best as fullback, and the emergence of Nathan Cleary as halfback of Origin potential, the Panthers were very well served in the spine to go with some of their exciting forwards and outside backs. Where the Panthers struggled at times was in defence and with the amount of errors they made through overplaying their hand. The Panthers had the second worst defence of any team to make the finals and also made the 4th most errors in the NRL and they ranked 3rd for amount of missed tackles in front of only the Titans and Knights.
2017 Gains - The Panthers made a couple of big off season signings with James Tamou (Cowboys) and Mitch Rein (Dragons) brought in to stiffen up their forward pack. While Penrith were not dominated in the front row, they lacked a big player there and Tamou, at his best, has the potential to take this side to another level. Tamou was disappointing last year for North Queenland, however at his best is one of the best front rowers in the game. It will be interesting to watch Mitch Rein at the Panthers and whether he plays a more creative style of football than he did at the Dragons. I was not a huge fan of Rein at the Dragons as I thought he took too many wrong options with the football. However, at the very least, he will add a dynamic running game to complement Peter Wallace's crafty play at Number 9. Other gains for the Panthers include Tim Browne (Bulldogs), Michael Oldfield (Rabbitohs), Darren Nicholls (Redcliffe Dolphins) and Jed Cartwright (Titans).
2017 Losses - The Panthers have not lost any big names over the off season, rather releasing a number of death players or younger players. Zak Hardaker, the Englishman, did not look up to NRL standard and it was no surprise to see him head back to the Super League. Other losses for the Panthers included Ben Garcia (Catalans), Chris Smith (Sydney Roosters), George Jennings (Eels), Jeremy Latimore (Sharks), Suaia Matagi (Eels), Andrew Heffernan (Hull KR), Chris Grevsmuhl (released), Robert Jennings (Rabbitohs), Will Smith (Eels) and Andy Saunders (Bulldogs).
2017 Player To Watch - Te Maire Martin - Before he went down with a shoulder injury in round eight that ended his season, the 21 year old showed flashes of brilliance in the six games he played in First Grade. Martin reminds me a little of a young Benji Marshall with his fit flashy passing game and light footwork. The Panthers will be hoping he forms a lethal partnership with fellow youngster Nathan Cleary which could be the most dynamic halves combination in the NRL for years to come. What Martin will have to become accustomed to is plenty of traffic heading his way defensively, which will be a significant test for a young player coming off a serious shoulder injury.
2017 Fixture - (decent) It seems to be a fairly friendly draw for the Panthers in 2017 with 6 games against last year’s Top 4 and just one 5-day turn around for the whole season. However, look a bit deeper and you see the Panthers have a monster 7 6-day turnarounds, which is clearly the most of any club in the NRL. The Panthers have a big chance of making a fast start to the season with fixtures against the Dragons, Tigers, Roosters and Knights, four clubs that all missed the finals last season.
2017 Forecast - 7th (13-14 wins)
I had this team as a top 4 special however I just have a few concerns over a few things which might keep them from reaching their potential this season. Penrith have not made the finals in back-to-back seasons since back in 2003-04, so they’re not known for being a consistently prolific club. However, there is no doubt they have an extremely talented and young roster which is capable of winning the competition if everything clicks. My concerns lie with the fact Josh Mansour is likely to miss at least half the season with a knee injury and was a huge part of their backline. Both Peter Hiku and Dean Whare are returning from long term injuries so they might be a little rusty early on. Whilst I think their halves pairing of Martin and Cleary is very exciting, Cleary is likely to experience some ups and downs in his second season in the NRL which is traditionally harder than your rookie season in some respects, as teams have some insights into your strengths and weaknesses.
However, this team, unlike many of the NRL, has outstanding depth in their Club with another set of boom youngsters coming through and the likes of Tyrone Peachey and James Fisher-Harris likely only to make the Panthers’ bench. Their back row of Cartwright and Merrin is dynamic and I'm really excited to watch the brand of football this side plays again in 2017 with their ball movement and second phase play better than any other side in the competition. I’m forecasting a slowish start for the Panthers, but for this side to come home with another wet sail with about 13-14 wins and hit the finals with momentum.