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.

Recruitment report

Ins: Christian Crichton (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, 2022), Sean O'Sullivan (New Zealand Warriors, 2022)

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 11: Christian Crichton of the Bulldogs looks on during the round nine NRL match between the Brisbane Broncos and the Canterbury Bulldogs at Suncorp Stadium on July 11, 2020 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

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)

NSWRL Rd 2 - Mounties v Panthers
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 20: Matt Burton of the Panthers runs the ball during the round two NSWRL match between the Mounties and the Penrith Panthers at Bankwest Stadium, on March 20, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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)

Full squad
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

SUNSHINE COAST, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 28: Dylan Edwards and Isaah Yeo greet fans during a Penrith Panthers NRL training session at Sunshine Coast Stadium on September 28, 2021 in Sunshine Coast, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

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 back up is led by non-specialist fullbacks, but with Stephen Crichton and Charlie Staines both able to drop back, they aren’t short.

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.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 22: Brian To'o of the Panthers is tackled during the round seven NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the Newcastle Knights at BlueBet Stadium, on April 22, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

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.

NRL Rd 23 - Panthers v Rabbitohs
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 20: Nathan Cleary of the Panthers is tackled by Cameron Murray of the Rabbitohs during the round 23 NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Suncorp Stadium, on August 20, 2021, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

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.

Middle forwards
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.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 24: Isaah Yeo of the Panthers looks on during the round 24 NRL match between the New Zealand Warriors and the Penrith Panthers at Mt Smart Stadium on August 24, 2018 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

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.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 20: Viliame Kikau of the Panthers makes a break during the round two NRL match between the Canterbury Bulldogs and the Penrith Panthers at Bankwest Stadium, on March 20, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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

14. Mitch Kenny
15. Scott Sorensen
16. Spencer Leniu
17. Matthew Eisenhuth

Other best 17s

Brisbane Broncos
Canberra Raiders
Canterbury Bulldogs
Cronulla Sharks
Gold Coast Titans
Manly Sea Eagles
Melbourne Storm
Newcastle Knights
New Zealand Warriors
North Queensland Cowboys
Parramatta Eels
South Sydney Rabbitohs