The Panthers came into 2017 on the back of a brilliant campaign the year prior and many, myself included, thought they could challenge for a top four spot as a result. Unfortunately for fans at the foot of the mountains that did not happen.
A slow start saw them at 6-7 in the opening 14 rounds (with a bye) and a real chance of missing the finals. A seven-game winning streak ultimately saw them qualify, and a first-round win against Manly had many believing they could achieve after all.
Brisbane ended their season in the second week of the finals while captain Matt Moylan sat on the sidelines, seemingly bound for either Manly or Cronulla. Meanwhile recently release Te-Marie Martin went on an absolute tear up north for the Cowboys. This combined for a bitter end to their 2017.
Fast forward to 2018 and the Panthers have a superstar, marquee signing on the books, have moved the Moylan distraction on and have a fully fit and firing Bryce Cartwright ready to return to his best. They may very well enter 2018 as they did 2017, with plenty of hope for success.
Recruitment Grading: B-
Despite a large turnover of players, the only genuine game-changing move was a straight swap deal involving Matt Moylan to bring James Maloney to the Panthers. The move provides an experienced, successful, number six to partner and mentor young Nathan Cleary. The Panthers number seven was forced to overplay his hand at times in 2017 after the Panthers struggled to find a full-time halves partner for him. Maloney will provide a second play-making and kicking option which should allow Cleary much more freedom. Maloney’s experience and history of success is a brilliant tool in ensuring Cleary reaches his full potential. They’ve given up a talented player in Moylan, but it was a risk that should pay off in a big way.
Star Player: Nathan Cleary
The Panthers have a stacked roster. They have an all-star forward pack, an exciting number one, big and fast outside backs, an experienced number nine, and two star halves. Their star man is undoubtedly their 20-year-old number seven. There is talk of Cleary debuting for NSW under Brad Fittler this season, but his early focus will be purely on his club form. If he can start 2018 as he finished 2017 then the Panthers are in good shape. As mentioned above, Maloney’s signing will assist Cleary both on and off the field. He has a brilliant opportunity, supreme talent and the world at his feet. 2018 could be his year.
— Moylan Mania 🍍 (@suthodan) January 17, 2018
Strength: Attacking brilliance
Penrith has point scoring potential that is downright scary. Dylan Edwards is a magician at the back. Mansour is arguably the most destructive winger in the game. DWZ can score tries from anywhere. The halves abilities are well documented. Cartwright and Corey Harawira-Naera are two of the most potent try-scoring back rowers in the competition. There is no shortage of try-scoring options and they will certainly cross the line with regularity. If they can hit their straps early on, they could really start 2018 with a bang. Games against the Dogs, Souths and Titans across the opening six rounds are very winnable. However, with two games against the Eels in the same time-frame as well as a clash with the Cowboys, the pressure may be on from literally kick off.
Weakness: Defensive frailty
James Maloney is an attacking genius. He can break the line at any given time. He is a point scoring machine and will improve the Panthers greatly. Bryce Cartwright is one of the most talented, young back-rowers I’ve seen in many years. He can pass, run and kick like a half, yet bust tackles and offload like a forward. Unfortunately neither are known as defensive specialists by any stretch. Expect the Panthers to miss a mountain of tackles in 2018 as teams target Maloney, Cleary and Cartwright. The Panthers conceded plenty of points last year and despite their ability to score points freely, will have to tighten up the defensive side of their game.
I almost clicked submit with the Panthers ranked fourth but the defensive side of their game just poses too many questions for a definite top four prediction. I have no doubt Penrith will be one of the better sides this year, certainly one of the more entertaining, but a quick run over their fixture list had me thinking they’ll probably win 14/15 games.
That tally would see them finish equal with the Sharks or Manly in 5th/6th position if 2018 follows the 2017 table. In 2017 they won 13 games after a horror start which should provide a rough reference.
Cartwright’s return is exciting and should provide an avenue of attack that wasn’t there last season. That alone should lead to competition points.
Maloney and Cleary’s combination is obviously key. I can’t see it failing by any stretch, but we’re going to hear a lot about the Maloney/Moylan switch deal this season and beyond.
I’m confident the Panthers will play finals footy but just miss the top four. If they can snag an extra win or two and finish in fourth position, with a fully firing side, they can worry anyone at the business end of the season.