The defending premiers will be out to go back-to-back, but it’ll be anything but straightforward for the Penrith Panthers in 2022.
The men from the foot of the mountains managed to break through with their first premiership in almost two decades last year, doing it the hard way after losing Week 1 of the finals before being forced into a trio of low-scoring, high-intensity contests against the Parramatta Eels, Melbourne Storm and South Sydney Rabbitohs to complete a grand final triumph.
They were the best team last year, but a couple of underrated departures will make life tougher as the 2022 season kicks off.
Here is the Penrith Panthers best 17 for the season ahead.
Outs: Matt Burton (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Kurt Capewell (Brisbane Broncos), Tyrone May (Catalan Dragons), Paul Momirovski (Sydney Roosters), Brent Naden (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Tevita Pangai Junior (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)
Re-signed: Stephen Crichton (2023), James Fisher-Harris (2026), Robert Jennings (2022), Mitchell Kenny (2024), Spencer Leniu (2023), Moses Leota (2024), Jarome Luai (2024), Scott Sorensen (2023), Isaah Yeo (2024)
Eddie Blacker, Nathan Cleary, Christian Crichton, Stephen Crichton, Dylan Edwards, Matthew Eisenhuth, Kurt Falls, James Fisher-Harris, J’maine Hopgood, Robert Jennings, Mitchell Kenny, Viliame Kikau, Apisai Koroisau, Spencer Leniu, Moses Leota, Jarome Luai, Liam Martin, Taylan May, Sean O’Sullivan, Jaeman Salmon, Chris Smith, Lindsay Smith, Scott Sorensen, Charlie Staines, Izack Tago, Brian To’o, Isaah Yeo
Who plays where?
Dylan Edwards, rightly or wrongly, cops his fair share of criticism for a lack of attacking creativity, and the numbers would seem to back those doubters up.
But playing in a Penrith team with Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Apisai Koroisau, Viliame Kikau, Isaah Yeo and fabulous attacking strike power out wide, it has been the other elements of his game which have been so important to Penrith - run metres, post-contact yards and a strong defensive attitude and mindset, as well as a high rugby league IQ and good defensive organisational play.
That is what has been important to Penrith, and Edwards excels at it. As such, and with a contract extension complete, there is no chance he won’t line up in the number one jumper this season.
The Panthers are blessed to have the best winger in the competition playing for them. A New South Wales Origin star, Brian To’o might not be the leading try-scorer, but he makes more metres and post-contact yards than any other player.
It’s rare a winger is a team’s most important player, but in the case of To’o, he might just be. The difference when he was injured for a handful of games late last year was stark.
The other wing spot is far less secure and stable. Charlie Staines played 21 games there last year though and scored 14 tries, so is the most likely candidate - and probably the best candidate at this stage - to line up out wide.
Robert Jennings is also in the squad and will push for a place, while Christian Crichton has been singed from Canterbury and showed a lot of promise at one point in his career. Taylan May is the other option.
The loss of Paul Momirovski will be a much bigger blow than anyone is giving it credit for when talking about the defending premiers.
He was rock solid defensively in one of the most important positions on the field - right centre. The Roosters recruit came up against a barrage of strong left-hand side attacking teams, and to a tee, kept them out week after week.
Stephen Crichton is a gun in the centres and will be the first picked there for the Panthers this year. Following a year where he played centre and wing, he will be glad to have some stability over his role once again.
Young gun Izack Tago will win the race for the other centre spot. The 19-year-old played six games last year all from the bench, but is primed and ready to be in the run on side. Fellow young gun Taylan May will put pressure on him, while Charlie Staines could also shift to centre if it suits team balance.
This doesn’t even feel like a question. In any other year, Nathan Cleary’s 2021 performance was enough to win the Dally M Medal. He was the second-best player in the game and led not only his side to a premiership, but his state to a State of Origin title in record-breaking circumstances as Queensland were left in the dust.
He will once again be joined in the spine by the ever prominent Jarome Luai, who is a wizard when it comes to putting try assists on the board.
He wasn’t excellent when Cleary was out of the side, but when 19 try assists in 25 games is considered a “low” return, it’s clear the sort of talent he has to work with.
Sean O’Sullivan has been signed by the club and will serve as the likely first back up option following a stint at the New Zealand Warriors. Jaeman Salmon is the next man in the queue for now, but expect Kurt Falls to be pushing O’Sullivan for the leading role in the New South Wales Cup team by the end of the year.
The Panthers have one of the best starting middle thirds in the competition. James Fisher-Harris was voted to last year's Dally M team of the year in amongst a strong field of contenders, Moses Leota is a far better competitor than he is sometimes given credit for, and Isaah Yeo is an Origin star who is at the height of his powers.
There is simply no way around it. If you want to beat Penrith, you have to find a way to overthrow their middle third.
The back up brigade is strong too. Young gun Spencer Leniu leads it off and could be set for more minutes this year, while the emergence of former Australian Schoolboys star Lindsay Smith will be one to watch if he can stay fit. Eddie Blacker is also highly regarded, having switched from the St George Illawarra Dragons in the middle of last year, while J'Maine Hopgood is one of the best young locks in the game.
Experience is also provided from Matthew Eisenhuth, who has 89 NRL appearances under his belt and played 19 games last year.
Apisai Koroisau will again hold the number nine jersey during his final year with the club as the Panthers push for back-to-back premierships.
A key member of Penrith's spine, Koroisau made his State of Origin debut last year and will look to go to another level in 2022.
He is backed up by Penrith's likely 2023 starting hooker, Mitch Kenny. The depth beyond that however is very skinny.
Kurt Capewell's departure opens up a spot in the second-row, and also poses a question for Ivan Cleary - where does Viliame Kikau play? That only is a question worth asking given he came from the bench during the back end of 2021 and did it exceptionally strongly.
The bottom line is this - Kikau is a wrecking-ball and has to hold onto a starting spot at the Panthers.
With one spot confirmed, it leaves the other spot in the second-row up in the air. Liam Martin is the most likely candidate to slot in, although his versatility and ability to play up front saw him become invaluable off the bench for Ivan Cleary at times last year.
Still, he was the man selected to start for Kikau, so it only makes sense that he remains as part of that starting 13 this year, backed up by Scott Sorensen. Development players Preston Riki and Mavrik Geyer could come into contention if back up is needed during the second half of the season.
Mitchell Kenny's ability to become a lock forward during the back half of last year, while providing cover for Koroisau off the bench, as well as the departure of former utility Tyrone May, means he takes the first spot on the pine.
The remaining three spots all go to forwards. Scott Sorensen, as a strong edge forward, will certainly be afforded a spot in this best 17.
The remaining spots go the way of middle forwards. Spencer Leniu takes the first and will push for more minutes this year as he continues to go to the next level.
It's tempting to play another youngster in the other spot - Blacker, Lindsay Smith or Hopgood - but impossible in the same breath. Penrith need a little bit of experience and proven ability at NRL level in the other spot, so it goes to Eisenhuth, who can play equally at prop or lock and was nothing short of solid in 2021 during his 19 games.
The best 17
1. Dylan Edwards
2. Brian To'o
3. Stephen Crichton
4. Izack Tago
5. Charlie Staines
6. Jarome Luai
7. Nathan Cleary
8. James Fisher-Harris
9. Apisai Koroisau
10. Moses Leota
11. Viliame Kikau
12. Liam Martin
13. Isaah Yeo
Other best 17s
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