The 2018 season for the Penrith Panthers will be remembered more for the crazy timing of their sacking Anthony Griffin than it will be for results.
As fun as it was watching the Panthers come from behind to win the seemingly unwinnable, I’m sure I wasn’t the only non-Panthers fan left scratching my head at some of the off-season decisions made by the Penrith brass.
I take great joy in reminding my Panther supporting mates that they sacked their coach four weeks out from the finals.
I take even greater joy in reminding them that they replaced Griffin with a rookie coach they never really had any intention of re-appointing in 2019 and beyond in Cameron Ciraldo.
For what its worth I see Ciraldo having a successful career as a coach in the top grade. He’s a quality leader despite his young age and seems to have admirers in high places.
That said, there was exactly 0.3% of a chance that Penrith were going into 2019 under the watch of anyone not named Ivan Cleary.
This despite the fact that, at the time, Cleary was under long-term contract to cross-town rivals the Tigers.
Glorious fun was had at the Panthers expense as the will he/won’t he saga resembled the worst episodes of the worst midday soap.
Unfortunately for those of us who don’t have Panthers jerseys in the closet, it may be the Panthers who have the last laugh.
The 2019 Panthers enter this season with something past Panthers sides haven’t had for many years … stability.
Stability and Panthers don’t often appear in the same line of thought but the 2019 Panthers are as stable and well set as any side in the competition.
Ivan Cleary has come on board with big money, long-term contract. He signed a five-year deal in late October signalling that his next stint at the club will surely be a long one.
Not even Phil Gould would pull an early trigger on a guy holding a half decade long contract to his name. That’s with no disrespect to the Panthers head honcho, but he has developed a reputation as someone who isn’t afraid to move on a coach.
So Penrith can now plan, recruit and sell corporate memberships and packages based on a coach who has taken a side to a Grand final for the next five years.
Secondly, yet strangely enough in the same family, the Panthers have also re-signed their star halfback Nathan Cleary to the club to the end of the 2023 season.
The contract was an upgrade and extension to the tune of four years and, you’d imagine, plenty of dollars.
The Origin winning half looks to have the number seven jumper locked down at club and state level for as long as he wants it. At only 21 years of age, he’s still got plenty of improvement in him.
So the club now has both Cleary members locked down for the next five years.
They have a very clear path and now have the tools to walk that very path.
Last year, despite some favourable results, the Panthers never looked like a club with a long-term plan. I will fight every urge in my body to not make an awful five-year plan joke here, but in 2018 there was no plan.
They looked to have backed Griffin. They’d made finals in 2017 and looked set for as high as a top four finish in 2018.
Yet just four weeks out from the finals series, boom, gone. A supposed mid-season review leads to the conclusion that Griffin couldn’t take the side to a title.
I’m not sure I can argue with that finding but to sack a coach a month out from finals? Yikes. Talk about risk.
Ciraldo did manage to lift the side to the second week of the finals, an incredible achievement considering the circumstances in which he took over, but they never looked title-bound.
The 2018 season also took place under a huge Nathan Cleary shaped cloud. Would he re-sign with the club or would he join his dad at the Tigers?
It turns out he will now play under his dad, as expected, but it will be at the Panthers, which until mid last season looked very ‘unexpected’.
Penrith also moved to sure up its long-term salary cap future by moving on big money forward Trent Merrin. Although I’m still not sure that is a positive, Gould, Cleary and co have shown they will make big decisions to sure up the future.
All of Penrith’s big names are now locked down for the foreseeable future, as is their coach.
It’s going to be strange entering a season and not having almost weekly articles of speculation regarding the Panthers playmaking or coaching roles.
I’m not sure I’m ready.
That said, Penrith looks in a brilliant spot to launch a genuine title tilt in 2019 on the back of a crazy 2018.
Imagine this super talented Panthers side with a stable pad to launch off? Could be interesting, to say the least.