Pool: Waiheke Pool (Sharks, Titans, Panthers, Bulldogs)
Squad: Dylan Edwards, Corey Waddell, Waqa Blake, Jed Cartwright, Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, Nathan Cleary, Kaide Ellis, Sione Katoa, Darren Nicholls, Tyrone May, Moses Leota, Sitaleki Akauola, James Tamou, Christian Crichton, Corey Harawira-Naera, Isaah Yeo (c), Zach Dockar-Clay, Oliver Clark
After falling two wins short of a Grand Final appearance in 2016, Penrith has recruited hulking forward James Tamou as they prepare to make a premiership charge. While the squad carries a tonne of young talent, it has a heap of stars as well.
Tamou last featured in the Nines in 2014, named in the Auckland Nines Team of the Tournament as he led the Cowboys to victory. Such a big frame, the giant prop has the ability to draw in multiple defenders and still manage to offload the footy, creating much-needed overlaps in the format.
Last year not only saw the likes of superstars Trent Merrin, Bryce Cartwright and Peter Wallace take their games to another level, but saw a few future superstars emerge as well. Of the 2016 debutants, Dylan Edwards, Nathan Cleary and Moses Leota travel to Auckland as the mountain men look to claim their maiden Nines trophy.
Who To Watch: Nathan Cleary. The halfback burst onto the scene midway through last year, having immediate effects on the Panthers team. Despite only being 18 at the time, Cleary led the team like a seasoned pro, and there’s no reason he’ll do any differently at the tournament. While Isaah Yeo wears the ‘captain’ title proudly, Cleary can lead this squad around the park, and into the finals.
Why They Can Win: Holden Cup. It’s an odd reason, but it’s an important one. While a lot of the boys are untested at NRL level, the majority have pre-existing combinations – from the Penrith Holden Cup team. The 20s were one of the strongest teams in 2016, only narrowly losing the Grand Final after a poor second half. Chuck the experience of Tamou into the mix and the Panthers have enough understanding of each other to take it out.
Why They Can’t Win: Physicality. Yes, Tamou is a big unit. But they don’t have enough props in their squad to match it with the rest of them. The Panthers will come up against the likes of Sam Kasiano, Dave Klemmer, Ryan James and Chris Heighington in their pool, and they simply don’t have the big bodies to match it. Youngsters like Moses Leota aren’t small, but they aren’t developed enough to hold off those bigger bodies.
Prediction: Nathan Cleary is a big inclusion for Penrith, while James Tamou can’t be underestimated. But they lack that x-factor. If Anthony Griffin had included the likes of Leilani Latu and Bryce Cartwright, they’d be near favourites for the title. But unfortunately, they haven’t, so while they may make the Finals, there are stronger squads than Penrith running around.