12 months can be an awfully long time in the professional sports world, and rugby league is most certainly not immune.
Premiership sides can be built, or destroyed, through a single season of clever recruitment, or the unearthing of a special talent who matures quickly.
This time last year things at the foot of the mountains didn’t look too great. With all due respect to Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace, their halves pairing hardly struck fear into the hearts of many opposition defences.
The Panthers roster was far from the weakest across the competition, but very few had them pushing for a top four spot, and even less had them in any sort of consideration when it came to picking a competition winner.
Panthers fans love to remind me that I had them finishing 13th last season, and to be honest at the time I thought I was being generous.
I didn’t like the look of their halves, thought their best-attacking player in James Segeyaro was being blunted in attack and believed Matt Moylan would have to overplay his hand due to the club starting poorly in his absence.
Taking absolutely nothing away from his accomplishments, which include a Premiership and NSW jumpers, 2016 Jamie Soward just didn’t have the spark 2009 Jamie Soward had.
That’s nothing against the player himself, he’s 32 years of age, and playing a different role to that he played during his prime at the Red V.
His halves partner Peter Wallace would tackle all day and is capable of reading the game as well as any player in the competition. His game was far more suited to the role of a number nine and has looked a far better player since making the move.
Flash forward 12 months and the Panthers have two of the most exciting halves in the competition.
Te Maire Martin is 21-year-old yet already has a New Zealand cap to his name despite playing just the six NRL games.
In those six NRL appearances, the young Kiwi looked the goods across all facets of his role as five-eighth. His kicking game was controlled, his footwork was dazzling and he looked like he could genuinely break the line.
His 2017 halves partner Nathan Cleary enters the season with just the 15 games to his name, but already has two finals appearances, and is being talked about as a future NSW mainstay.
Few players made the impact of the 19-year-old Cleary in 2016. The young gun’s introduction to the side kick-started a late season charge for the Panthers, who became a real attacking force.
Including the game in which he debuted, a loss to the Storm, the Panthers only lost five games with Cleary steering the ship.
Meanwhile, they won ten games, including a brilliant performance, and win, over the Bulldogs in the first round of the finals.
He scored tries, set tries up, took control of the kicking game, and made players outside of him look far more damaging than they had looked previously.
Bryce Cartwright, who has long been seen as a future superstar, really came into his own in 2016 and now looks an absolute lock for future rep honours.
He filled in at five-eighth following injuries to the likes of Te Maire Martin, and many wondered if the temporary move would stunt his footballing growth.
If anything, it fast-tracked the development of his attacking game as the extra responsibility forced him to be more creative. He developed a short kicking game that will allow the Panthers another option going forward.
Despite his heroics, he will return to the back row and will enter 2017 as perhaps the most exciting and creative back rower competition wide.
Matt Moylan returned following an injury-delayed start to 2016 and made such an immediate impact that he represented NSW in the halves.
His 18 try assists across the 19 regular season games he played saw him record the same amount of try assists as Ben Barba, who played all 24 games. James Tedesco, in 17 games, had 12 try assists.
Trent Merrin’s arrival completely revitalised the former NSW and Kangaroo forward and helped turn the Panthers pack into a much stronger unit.
He will be joined by rep prop James Tamou who will further improve an already formidable pack.
Josh Mansour’s injury slightly blunts the Panthers attack, but he will return.
Season previews aren’t too far away, and there may be plenty of surprises, but one promise I can make, is that I won’t be placing the Panthers down at 13th for 2017.
They may not win the title in 2017, and there are plenty of teams who will be more prominently favoured, but this side is set up nice to be a real force in a few years time.