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2017 shapes as a critical season for a confident Penrith side who aim for consecutive Top Eight finishes for the first time since 2004.
Penrith continued to perplex the experts in 2016, dismissing their 11th place finish from the previous year to storm into the finals in sixth position. No one had ever doubted their potential, their squad boasting several promising stars of the future including Waqa Blake, Leilani Latu and Reagan Campbell-Gillard - who would all look to build upon solid debut seasons heading into 2016.
What is touted as the best junior nursery in the league would continue to deliver, with the release of Jamie Soward and injury to boom rookie Te Maire Martin paving the way for 18 year old Nathan Cleary to make an unexpected debut and guide his side to the finals. Ultimately, Penrith's youthful exuberance would prove to be both its rise and undoing in the finals, with scintillating attack seeing the Panthers power past the Bulldogs 28-12 in the first week of September footy. Yet, only a week later, a whopping fifty missed tackles would see Penrith stumble in disappointing fashion at the hands of Canberra.
The pride of a promising season now gives way to expectation, with fans and pundits alike expecting further improvement in 2017. Hence, this season appears a pivotal one for Matt Moylan's men if they are to take advantage of last year's success and consolidate themselves as consistent premiership contenders, along with the likes of the Cowboys, Broncos and Storm. Not only this, but with such young talent it seems the Panthers are primed for a shot at the title in the next couple of years, which would be particularly notable when you take into account the difficulty that they face in retaining their impressive depth.
There are already roadblocks though. Penrith's 2017 campaign hit its first hurdle in the form of a devastating injury to in-form winger Josh Mansour at Four Nations training in early November last year. It was a cruel blow for not only Penrith but Mansour himself, who enjoyed a stellar season. 'Sauce' was recognised for his individual brilliance as 2016 Dally M Winger of the Year.
Yet as mentioned earlier, Penrith's extensive depth means that coach Anthony Griffin does not have to look far to find a replacement. Although no one will be able to replicate the powerful tackle busting powers of the wounded Mansour, 'Hook' is faced with a tough decision in regards to his replacement on the wing. Shifting New Zealand international Peta Hiku to the wing may be one option, whilst NSW Cup stars Dylan Edwards and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak strengthened their chances with fine performances at the Auckland Nines tournament. Another critical question mark over the success of Penrith's 2017 season is the likely partnership of Te Maire Martin and Nathan Cleary. While Cleary was highly professional in his debut year, Martin was denied such a chance, reduced by injury to just six games in 2016. Much of Penrith's chances this season hinge on their halves and whether they can take ownership of a side under so much pressure to perform.
We've already hinted at it, but Penrith's depth has proved a godsend in healing their injury woes in recent seasons. The fact that two New Zealand Internationals in Hiku and Dean Whare may have to bide their time in reserve grade at the beginning of the season speaks volume on the quality of Penrith's side heading into 2017. The one weakness that was found in previous years was their forward pack, which while mobile, lacked the size of the competition heavyweights. The acquisition of James Tamou rounds off one of the best engine rooms in the game, with Latu, Campbell-Gillard and James Fisher-Harris all relishing their time in first grade and following the same path of the equally impressive Isaah Yeo towards a settled spot in the top grade. With one of the best rosters in the game, there are no excuses for the Panthers this year.
It's quite simple. If Penrith fix up the silly mistakes they have been burdened by in past seasons they can go as far as they like. Unfortunately, it has been both errors and missed tackles which have proved their downfall. In the past three years, Penrith finished the second worst culprits when it came to missing tackles, a worrying trend which cost them in their Semi Final against Canberra last year. It is a similar story when it comes to errors, ranking third last year and second in 2015. If the Panthers can clean this up it will go a long way to boosting their chances of premiership success.
Viliame Kikau, although not a Penrith junior, is certainly one to watch this season. Signed from North Queensland and weighing in at 114 kilograms, the 21 year old Fijian managed 32 tries in 42 games in the Holden Cup (despite primarily playing at Prop), before joining Penrith in 2016 and impressing in the NSWRL Intrust Super Premiership. Although hampered by injury, Kikau has now forced his way into Penrith's NRL Squad and will be pushing for inclusion in their forward pack come Round 1.
Losses | Ben Garcia (Catalans), Chris Smith (Sydney Roosters), George Jennings (Eels), Zak Hardaker (Castelford), Jeremy Latimore (Sharks), Suaia Matagi (Eels), Andrew Heffernan (Hull KR), Chris Grevsmuhl (released), Robert Jennings (Rabbitohs), Will Smith (Eels), Andy Saunders (Bulldogs)
*Note: Josh Mansour and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak are both unavailable for Round 1 due to knee injuries.
1. Matt Moylan
2. Dylan Edwards
3. Waqa Blake
4. Tyrone Peachey
5. Peta Hiku
6. Te Maire Martin
7. Nathan Cleary
8. James Tamou
9. Peter Wallace
10. Leilani Latu
11. Isaah Yeo
12. Bryce Cartwright
13. Trent Merrin
Click the image below for a full size version of Penrith's 2017 schedule, downloadable for your desktop!