2021 NRL Grand Final - Panthers v Rabbitohs
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 03: The Panthers celebrate with the NRL Premiership Trophy after victory in the 2021 NRL Grand Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Suncorp Stadium on October 03, 2021, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

The Penrith Panthers finally broke through to win their first premiership since 2003 in the 2021 season, but that will just put a target on their back for 2022.

The Panthers will be the one team everyone wants to beat, and it’s going to make it a struggle for the men from the foot of the mountains to keep their dominance.

Add to that, Apisai Koroisau and Viliame Kikau are set to leave the foot of the mountains at season’s end, and things just go up a gear in terms of complications.

The task in front of Ivan Cleary isn’t something rival coaches will envy in 2022 as he looks to get his team into what would be a third straight grand final, following their loss to the Storm in 2020 which preceded the win in 2021.

They have the Dally M Medalist, a litany of Origin players and stars as far as the eye can see, but is it really all rosy for 2022 at the foot of the mountains?

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - MAY 17: Panthers coach Ivan Cleary speaks to the media after the round 10 NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the New Zealand Warriors at Panthers Stadium on May 17, 2019 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The defending premiers are always going to be a difficult team to pick a player to steal for, given they really should have it all.

But do the Panthers actually have it all? Where would they upgrade, and who would they steal if they could take any player in the competition with no salary cap and no contracts.

Who would your club steal?
» 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
» St George Illawarra Dragons
» Sydney Roosters
» Wests Tigers

The Panthers’ current squad for 2022

Eddie Blacker, Nathan Cleary, Stephen Crichton, Dylan Edwards, Matthew Eisenhuth, Kurt Falls, James Fisher-Harris, J’maine Hopgood, Thomas Jenkings, 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

Gaps in the best 17

You could argue the departure of Paul Momirovski is the biggest gap the Panthers will need to fill as we move into the 2022 season.

While he won't get the same wraps as other top-line centres, the Roosters' recruit is one of the best defensive options out wide and does run the ball strongly every time without fail.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 03: Paul Momirovski of the Panthers runs the ball during the 2021 NRL Grand Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Suncorp Stadium on October 03, 2021, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Young gun Izack Tago has been touted as the man to step in and fill the position, but it does look to be the most pressing position to potentially fill if the Panthers were to steal someone.

That becomes even more so the case when you consider Penrith also lose Matt Burton, who was sensational in the centres last year - it does mean Stephen Crichton won't be forced to play on the wing at all, but they are most certainly a centre short.

Given Penrith's reliance on the edge defence and combinations out wide being successful all year, you could argue it's about as important as it gets too.

Tago is an excellent footballer though, so there is also scope for Penrith to simply go out and upgrade one of their positions across the park.

Tevita Pangai Junior filled a role off the bench for the premiers at the back end of last season and did it well, so there could also be an argument to find an impact forward as well.

That is even more so the case when you consider the platform Penrith are able to build through Moses Leota and James Fisher-Harris, while they also have an 80-minute option at lock in Isaah Yeo.

The second-row is the only other place you could argue the Panthers may need an upgrade. Viliame Kikau was a weapon off the bench last year, while Liam Martin's versatility to play in either the second-row or middle third means the club won't want to be pigeonholing him into an edge role.

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)

Scott Sorensen is the realistic bench option in the second-row right now, meaning a second-row upgrade could certainly be on the cards if Penrith had the ability to be greedy and steal anyone they wanted.

The other question surrounds a bench utility - Tyrone May has departed and it's unclear who will fill that role right now. Mitch Kenny could be a starter at hooker, but his lack of versatility to play in the backline could impact the Panthers.

The candidates to steal

Option 1: Justin Olam (Melbourne Storm)
Olam was named to the Dally M team of the year in 2021, and with good reason. The Papua New Guinean had a simply unbelievable year, being a dominant force on the edge for the Storm.

Scoring tries at will and assisting others, his size and strength made him at times an impossibility to tackle or slow down, and it's little surprise he was part of a team who at times were averaging almost 40 points per game.

It's not just his attack though.

Olam has developed into one of the best defensive centres in the game, and again, his size and strength is a key component to that.

Put him on the outside of Nathan Cleary, Dylan Edwards and inside the freakish Brian To'o, and you have to wonder what the limit of potential really is, if at all.

JUSTIN OLAM
Centre
Storm
2021 SEASON AVG
0.4
Try Assists
0.6
LB Assists
0.5
Tries

Option 2: Kotoni Staggs (Brisbane Broncos)
Staggs might have only managed a handful of games for the Broncos in 2021, but he made an instant difference to the team.

The Broncos were a rabble for much of the 2021 season, of that there can be no doubt, but the star centre made an enormous difference in between serious injuries.

While Staggs is rumoured for a move into the halves sooner rather than later, the star would fit right in at Penrith.

Replacing the departing Burton, the ability to potentially fill multiple positions means he would play a majority at centre, but could shift when need be.

His creativity and defence also make him an exciting prospect in such a strong system.

KOTONI STAGGS
Centre
Broncos
2021 SEASON AVG
0.3
Try Assists
0.5
LB Assists
0.8
Tries

Option 3: David Fifita (Gold Coast Titans)
If the Panthers are looking for a game-breaking second-rower, then Fifita could be the man.

Fifita is a wrecking ball whether starting or coming from the bench on the Gold Coast, but you could only imagine what he might be able to achieve in the Penrith system.

A tackle buster among the best in the competition, to go with an incredible tenacity to find the try line, Fifita is the sort of player every team wants running around for them, and even more so if he can get consistent - which you'd anticipate he might do under Ivan Cleary.

It would potentially allow Kikau or Martin to come from the bench and for Penrith to play with the most dominant edge outfit in the competition.

DAVID FIFITA
Second-row
Titans
2021 SEASON AVG
20.6
Tackles Made
0.7
Tries
6.6
Tackle Breaks

Option 4: Connor Watson (Sydney Roosters)
Watson turned himself into the game's best utility option last year, and would be the ideal replacement for Tyrone May's role.

The Roosters being interested in Watson was hardly a surprise - playing as either a starting lock or from the bench, Watson's ability to play multiple positions brings the sort of versatility most teams can only dream about.

But he did all that without lowering his level of output and production.

Penrith don't necessarily need a lock given Isaah Yeo is there, but the ability for Watson to play as an extra creative player in the middle third, and fill in for Nathan Cleary or Jarome Luai on occasion would be enticing.

CONNOR WATSON
Lock
Knights
2021 SEASON AVG
0.4
Offloads
0.1
Tries
0.2
Try Assists

The verdict

It's fairly clear that the most pressing need for the Panthers is with regards to their centre options.

The second-row and bench utility or power forward would be nice options to upgrade, but if you're only looking at a single player, then it's impossible to justify them ahead of the centre.

It's not clear cut in terms of who they would grab either. Justin Olam is the centre of the year, but Staggs only managed three games and if you're looking to replace Burton, he could do just that with multiple positions able to be played.

Staggs also has the talent, and rugby league IQ, to be the best in the game given time and the right system. Playing off the likes of Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai could turn him into just that, and it's an option simply too good for the Panthers to turn down.

Kotoni Staggs (Brisbane Broncos)

NRL Rd 15 - Broncos v Dragons
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 21: Kotoni Staggs of the Broncos looks on during the round 15 NRL match between the Brisbane Broncos and the St George Illawarra Dragons at Suncorp Stadium on August 21, 2020 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Be sure to check back in tomorrow when we look at the Panthers’ grand final opponents, the South Sydney Rabbitohs.