SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 19: Trent Merrin of the Panthers celebrates scoring a try with team mates during the round 24 NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the Wests Tigers at Pepper Stadium on August 19, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

Nathan Cleary stole all the headlines this season. The young halfback’s meteoric rise, along with new captain Matt Moylan and explosive winger Josh Mansour, led to Penrith making the elimination finals this year. And while the star backs were firm in the limelight, it was Penrith’s forward pack that did all the heavy lifting in 2016.

Despite the injury curse once again striking at the foot of the mountains, Penrith proved that their skilful forwards don’t even need to play in the forwards to have an impact. Season-ending injuries to five-eighth Te Maire Martin and left centre Peta Hiku saw Bryce Cartwright and Tyrone Peachey move to the backline for the final few months of the season – and excelled. And with the return of Martin and Hiku signalling Peachey and Cartwright’s return to the forward pack, it just makes it even more scary to the opposition.

Penrith has taken a big gamble, signing former Cowboy James Tamou to a whopping four-year deal worth $3 million. The premiership-winning prop’s salary of $750,000 a season makes him one of the leagues highest paid front-rowers, but his experience to Penrith’s forward will be invaluable. Young forwards James Fisher-Harris, Leilani Latu and Reagan Campbell-Gillard will cherish Tamou’s experience, as they did with the signing of Trent Merrin in 2016. Tamou adds grunt to a very skilful forward pack, and if can return to his peak form, will prove to be one of the strongest signings the club has made in recent years.

PICK YOUR TEAM – Play coach and name your lineup for Round 1

Even with the exit of forwards Jeremy Latimore, Chris Grevsmuhl and Suaia Matagi, competition amongst Penrith’s forwards is so fierce that no matter what side coach Anthony Griffin runs with, a representative forward will most likely run out for the side’s reserve grade side. The side could run out with as many as six internationals, while the majority of other forwards in the squad carry some sort of rep experience.

Anthony Griffin will have a battle on his hands picking his best forward pack week in, week out in 2017. And unless the injury curse hits Penrith hard again in 2017, they’ll have one fearsome forward pack.

Likely Forward Pack (Representative Experience)

  1. Sam McKendry (eight tests for New Zealand)
  2. Peter Wallace (two games for City, four games for NSW, four tests for Scotland)
  3. James Tamou (fourteen games for NSW, twelve tests for Australia)
  4. Isaah Yeo (one game for Country)
  5. Bryce Cartwright (one game for City)
  6. Trent Merrin (one game for the NRL All-Stars, three games for Country, thirteen games for NSW, five tests for Australia)
  7. Tyrone Peachey (two games for the Indigenous All-Stars, two games for City)
  8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard (two games for City, one game for Fiji)
  9. James Fisher-Harris (one test for New Zealand)
  10. Leilani Latu (one for the Indigenous All-Stars, one game for City)

Notable Absentees: Mitch Rein (two games for Country), Sitaleki Akauola (one test for Tonga)

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