SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 08: Christian Crichton of the Panthers celebrates scoring a try with team mates during the NRL Elimination Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the New Zealand Warriors at ANZ Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

Pre-Season Prediction: 5th

Actual Finish: 5th (Second week of finals)

A rare, spot on prediction. The Panthers lost some talent but recruited well over all.

Although we ultimately correctly predicted the Panthers 5th placed finish, no one in their right mind would have predicted the manner in which the Panthers finished the 2018 season.

The Star: Viliame Kikau

The Fijian wrecking ball won the Panthers’ members Player of the Year and would be the player who caused more nightmares for opposition defenders than any others.

His barnstorming run off the kick of the semi final against the Sharks summed up his season. He dominated all in front of him with size, strength, football and genuine footballing ability.

It’s scary to think this kid is still only 23 years of age. The 2017 World Cup really saw the emergence of the second rower but 2018 saw him develop into one of the game’s elite forwards.

His efforts during the early rounds were enough to earn a further three years extension onto his contract at increased terms. The move was smart as there wouldn’t be a club in the NRL who couldn’t use Kikau’s talents moving forward.

Season highlight: Multiple comebacks

I literally lost count of the amount of times the Panthers came back to win from seemingly impossible deficits.

Despite being 18-0 down to a rampaging Sharks outfit, the Panthers almost stole the chocolates one last time. It was fitting that they couldn’t quite get there to end their season.

Few will forget the comeback against Manly. The Panthers were dead to rights with only a few minutes to go. Try after try after try saw Penrith capture it late and consign Manly to the most frustrating of defeats.

It seemed like every second week the Panthers fell 14-or-so behind, only to fly home and capture a win.

For Panthers fans it was frustrating as all get out, but for us neutrals, it was fun fun fun.

Break Out Star: Issah Yeo

The 23-year-old really came of age in 2018, winning the Panthers’ player of the year award. He was named captain in the absence of James Maloney through Origin and then injury.

Making over 31 tackles per game as well as over 112 metres, Yeo is the model of consistency and hard work. He doesn’t have the highlight reel of Kikau but he is equally as important to the Panthers.

Yeo put his name into genuine Origin contention, and although he did not represent his state, his name will be right there again next year following his 2018 season.

Summation:

It’s a case of what could have been at the foot of the mountains. What if they hadn’t left their run so late? What if they had removed Anthony Griffin earlier, or not at all?

What if Dylan Edwards didn’t get injured just as he was peaking with some impressive form?

What if Maloney didn’t fall to injury after the Origin period?

We’ll never know, but over all the Panthers can be very proud of their efforts in 2018.

2018 saw stars emerge, both their halves combine for an Origin victory, and a plethora or key re-signings.

Season Grade: B+

Penrith ultimately fell short of the ultimate goal, which is a Grand Final appearance.

Their 2018 bogey side, the Sharks, ended their season in front of a Panther dominated semi-final crowd.

Considering the season relied on hail-mary comebacks though has to have the Panthers brass more than a little worried. Literally a point or two either way and the Panthers could have finished anywhere from first to ninth.

Overall Panthers fans should be happy with the results. This squad was up to a top four finish, and they only just missed out on such.

That said, they haven’t been past week two of the finals in a long time, and have finished 6th, 7th and 5th across the past three seasons.

I suppose that is a gradual improvement, but for a side this talented, I’m sure the Panthers could have gone at least that one week further, thus earning them slightly less than an A grade.

It’s hard to find too many negatives, at least on field for the mountain men. They’re well placed for 2019 and beyond IF they can get their vision and coaching plan sorted sooner rather than later.

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