SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 17: Apisai Koroisau of the Panthers reacts with team mates after a Rabbitohs error during the NRL Preliminary Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium on October 17, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Same same but different.

The Panthers will go into the 2021 season as favourites, and rightfully so. They just fell short of premiership glory after dominating the 2020 season.

They have been able to keep the majority of the 2020 team together. Of the run-on side, only captain James Tamou has gone to the Wests Tigers and Josh Mansour is rumoured to be moving to another club in the near future.

A grand final defeat can either spur on a team to go one better or can deflate a team. After the amazing undefeated run into the finals only to lose the big one must have side effects.

The Panthers will be the hunted next year by their rivals. Coaches will spend the off-season studying everything about their play in 2020 to find any weaknesses and how to stop them.

If the Panthers can hold their focus and not be cut down by injuries, they should be premiership winners at seasons-end. 

However, the rugby league gods always have their way to provide the unexpected. It will be coach Ivan Cleary’s job to try and keep the Panthers focused when these unexpected issues eventuate.

His son and playmaker, Nathan, has been the victim of some unfair criticism of going missing in big games. At 23 and 100 NRL games, Cleary has achieved more than most in his short career other than to lead his team to a premiership.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – AUGUST 31: Nathan Cleary of the Panthers looks dejected after a Roosters try during the round 24 NRL match between the Sydney Roosters and the Penrith Panthers at Sydney Cricket Ground on August 31, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

But Penrith are not a one man team. Cleary plays his role well. At times he should run the ball more. At state level he was not alone in playing below his best. In this year’s grand final he had a poor first half but he made up for it in the 2nd half.

His halves partner Jarome Luai had a breakout season, dominating in attack with a great short kicking game. More responsibility needs to go to Luai to take pressure off Cleary and give the attack more options.

The Panthers also have Api Koroisau at hooker to drive their attack. He was undoubtably the best buy of 2020. Koroisau looked like he was carrying injuries into the finals series. Fully fit he is arguably the most dangerous dummy half in the game.

To round out the spine the Panthers used Dylan Edwards at fullback. Ivan Cleary might be tempted to move young star Stephen Crichton to fullback which would enable him to be more involved than from centre.

This might be a little harsh on Edwards as he was very safe and capable from the back but Crichton is a special talent.

Fullbacks like Tedesco, Papenhuyzen and Trbojevic have dominated the competition in recent years and Crichton can definitely join that company.

NRL Rd 11 - Titans v Panthers
GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA – JULY 26: Stephen Crichton of the Panthers scores a try during the round 11 NRL match between the Gold Coast Titans and the Penrith Panthers at Cbus Super Stadium on July 26, 2020 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

The Panthers have talent all over the park. Their squad has tremendous depth to cover losses in both the backs and forwards.

However, like any successful team, other clubs circle like vultures trying to pick up what they can.

James Tamou and Dane Laurie have joined Wests Tigers, Caleb Aekins will move to the Raiders and speculation surrounds Matt Burton’s 2021 season before a move to Belmore.

Coming the other way is Wests duo Matthew Eisenhuth and Robert Jennings.

Eisenhuth adds cover to the very impressive forward pack led by James Fisher-Harris and Isaah Yeo, while winger Jennings returns to where his career started.

If the Panthers can retain their desire not get sidetracked by what the rugby league gods throw their way and give Nathan Cleary the support he needs, they will be hard to beat in 2021.