On the back of a fairly successful 2018 season, the Penrith Panthers have positioned themselves well for a genuine shot at the 2019 premiership.
After many months of ridiculous speculation, the Panthers finally landed their long-term coach with Ivan Cleary joining his son at the foot of the mountains for possibly the next decade.
The Panthers fell painfully short to the Sharks in last year’s final series despite some huge distractions off field.
They look much better placed to have a genuine crack at the title now than at any time during 2018.
The betting agencies have them at around $10/$12 to lift the title in 2019, which sets them at about fourth or fifth favourite, depending on which website.
I’d argue that they’re a little better placed than that, and without going too far into the season previews (which will drop mid Jan/early Feb) I have the Panthers WAY up there.
Nathan Cleary really matured outside of James Maloney. Maloney himself has a year in the Penrith system although his form fell off drastically in the second half of 2018.
Viliame Kikau was, for mine, the clear break out star of 2018. He became an absolute wrecking ball for Penrith and almost won that aforementioned game against the Sharks on his own, massive shoulders.
Penrith have signed most of their stars down to long-term contracts and are now the very model of stability.
Things look very, very good, but upon NRL.com’s releasing their predicted round one team, one aspect of the Panthers side is glaring; they look very light on up front.
Make no mistake, their starting pack is huge and it is intimidating, but it really lacks the depth and over all strength of their 2018 list.
Campbell-Gillard is a rep prop at any level. Kikau is a mega star and will emerge as one of the game’s elite forwards in the next year or two, if he’s not already.
Yeo and Fisher-Harris hit harder than most and added real abilities stats to their resumes last season.
Tamou wound the clock back last season and looked like the former rep prop.
That said, I’m not sure that the Panthers big men rate up there with the very elite in the competition. Sides like the Roosters and Souths look the top of the pile, with the likes of the Cowboys, Broncos, Sharks and Storm the next level down, with the Panthers probably falling at the bottom half of that pile.
The Panthers lost Origin rep Tyrone Peachey to the Titans early last season. There were talks of Peach wanting out of his deal, but given the changes made to contract rules, that was never likely.
The huge moves happened late last season and for mine present a huge gamble by the mountain men.
They allowed Trent Merrin to walk away from the NRL and sign for Leeds in the Super League. Merrin didn’t have the most magnificent 2018 but he was hardly bad. He’s a rep forward who could play big minutes.
I’m not sure whether it was salary cap pressure, I suppose it absolutely had to be, but Merrin’s release certainly caught me off guard.
As much as that move surprised me, I could understand it. Merrin had a big money contract and his money could be used elsewhere. Makes sense.
The move that really shocked me was the Panthers allowing Corey Harawira-Naera to walk to the Bulldogs.
For the life of me I can’t understand why they allowed the 23 year-old long-time member of the club to go.
He was pushing for a run on spot, I’d have him in their personally, and I can’t see him being on a huge contract.
CHN is one of the game’s most fleet of foot second rowers with plenty of footwork and ball-playing ability. He knew his way to the try line and could bust a defensive line open from anywhere.
His defence was rapidly improving and to be honest I can’t find a weakness in his game.
Unless he was offered a monster deal at the Dogs and the Panthers couldn’t morally stand in his way, I don’t know why they let him walk.
The Panthers are now sans Peachey, CHN and Merrin. One run on prop, and two bench forwards who should be run on forwards.
That’s a huge chunk of their 2018 pack that has been largely unaccounted for.
They’ve signed Tim Grant, Hame Sele, and Tyrell Fuimaono. All three are handy players but they’re not regular starters.
As a result their 2019 bench hardly strikes the fear into opposition coaches that the likes of the better packs do.
Jack Hetherington is their likely bench prop. He looks the goods but he’s only 22 and has just 13 games to his name.
Fuimanono will likely jag a spot. He looks talented but again, at 22, he only has 20 games to his name. The large majority from the bench.
Moses Leota is the third bench forward, with Wade Egan likely to be the bench utility. Again, 23, only 34 games under his belt.
That’s a bench pack with just 67 games to their name. Without having the exact stats, maybe 10 run on starts combined, and most of those would be Tyrell at centre.
If there is an injury to the run on pack, which of those players is bashing down the door to replace them?
Penrith have the most successful NSW Cup side of recent times and always seem to produce good, young forwards, but the names Leota and Hetherington will have to do battle with the likes of Woods and Buukuya when they play the Sharks. That Roosters bench is even better again.
I’m happy to be proven wrong, but as it stands the Panthers look very light on up front heading into 2019.