Predicted Finish: 3rd
Actual Finish: 7th
Best Performer: Nathan Cleary
The sky is the absolute limit for Nathan Cleary after yet another brilliant season. His efforts were made even more impressive considering the amount of halves partners he had during 2017. In 2018 there will be no such troubles as he and Maloney could very well form a partnership at both club and state level. Eight try assists, 11 tries, eight line breaks, 84 goals. Not a bad output for a 20-year-old in only his second season of NRL. You’d have to think his game will improve yet again after a second full pre-season, and the fact Maloney will be there to take the reigns. Cleary recently admitted he wasn’t ready for Origin, but if he plays like he did this year, he’s not going to be given a choice.
Season Highlight: Round 18 – Round 24 win streak
There was a very real opportunity that Penrith, despite all the talent in the world, would miss the finals series in 2017. Heading into their round 18 clash with Manly, they realistically needed to win six of their remaining nine games to be sure of playing in mid to late September. Their 16-8 win over Manly was the start of a seven-game winning streak that saw them finish in the seventh position. The Warriors, Titans, Bulldogs, Tigers, Cowboys and Raiders would join Manly as victims of the fast-finishing Panther outfit. After losing three of their first four home games, they would only lose one further game at home all season. That’s the home form we expected from the beginning of the season. The winning streak gave them the confidence to knock Manly out in the first weekend of finals.
Best Signing: James Maloney
In James Maloney, the Panthers have signed a current NSW and Australian half with two premierships to his name. In his first season with the Sharks, he delivered a premiership that broke an almost 50-year drought. To say he has runs on the board is an understatement. Maloney didn’t have the greatest 2017 and seemed distracted, but I believe his efforts in 2018 will be greatly improved after securing his future. His job will be both to guide the side around and also to mentor young Nathan Cleary. There’s a very good chance that Penrith will host the NSW halves combination next season. He has the odd mistake and plenty of penalties in his game, but there is absolutely no downside to this signing for the mountain man.
Forward depth emerges: Penrith will be home to one of the game’s best forward packs in 2017 after the emergence of Corey Harawira-Naera and the continued development of Reagan Campbell-Gillard. RCG’s efforts were such that he earned a spot in the World Cup for the Kangaroos and now has a winner’s medal to his name. CHN emerged an attacking wrecking ball. His 12 line breaks and seven tries make him one of the most dangerous big men in the competition. Trent Merrin and James Tamou didn’t set the world on fire, but you could argue that Merrin especially didn’t let anyone down. The depth of this side is such that CHN and Tyrone Peachey could realistically be fighting for one bench spot in 2018.
Centres fire(ish): I’m an unashamed fan of Waqa Blake. I consider him to be one of the game’s most underrated and underappreciated backs. His stats were fairly impressive in 2017, with 12 line breaks and seven tries, although I’d expect that output to jump on the back of Jame Maloney’s signing. Same too with Dean Whare, who had moments to remember in 2017. Tyrone Peachey also had some impressive games in the back line, although I’d expect him to revert to a wide-running back row position off the bench. Blake and Whare showed enough this season to suggest that with Maloney and Cleary running the shop, they’ll be a huge threat moving forward.
Dylan Edwards: 21-year-old Dylan Edwards was so impressive in his 14 NRL games this season that the club was able to offer up prodigal son Matt Moylan in order to attract James Maloney to the club. If Edwards hadn’t provided so much to suggest he could become a superstar number one, you have to believe the Panthers would have shown more hesitance in the swap deal. Nine line breaks, five try assists and two tries of his own shown a great output for such a young fullback. He’ll be one to watch in 2018.
Season Grading: B-
I was torn on whether to award a B or a C so we’ll split the difference. It’s tough to claim any side who made it through to the second week of finals had a disappointing season, but you can’t help but think Penrith were primed to do a little more.
Finishing 7th was a letdown, that cannot be argued. This side, after their incredible 2016 season, should have been in the top four fight. Their win over Manly in the first weekend of the finals saved their season from an overall standpoint.
The aforementioned emergence of the likes of CHN and Dylan Edwards were two huge positives. Yet for every positive came a negative. Bryce Cartwright had a shocker of a season on and off the field, Matt Moylan has departed, and Trent Merrin and James Tamou struggled to live up to their huge reputations.
Overall I think Penrith fans can be pretty happy with a second round of finals finish, however at the start of the season all the talk was of much higher honours. It’s a strange one, as in terms of pure results, it’s probably a high ranging B rating. Compared to expectation, I think they underachieved.