2018 Review: Penrith Panthers

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Our 12th NRL club review assesses the fortunes of the re-born licorice allsorts - Penrith - as Andrew Jackson recounts a 2018 season of mixed emotions out west.

The arrival of proven winner James Maloney was supposed to transform one of the most promising young squads in the competition into true premiership contenders. And it - well - almost did. But despite leading the competition heading into the halfway mark of the year, injuries and a post-Origin slump saw Penrith slide out of the top four. Their coach was sacked a month out from the finals, in what some saw as a clear message that under Anthony Griffin, the Panthers couldn't win the title.

But they still fell short, sent packing in the semi-finals, for the third year straight.

For many clubs, this would be a success. For the Panthers, however, it was yet another wasted opportunity. And with Ivan Cleary controversially appointed coach of the club next year, all eyes will be on the mountain men to see if they finally fulfil their lofty expectations.

Unlike previous seasons, where they have struggled to fire in the opening rounds of the competition, the Panthers shot up towards the top of the ladder after winning 10 of their first 13 games. Success came despite a mounting injury toll, which included star halfback Nathan Cleary. And it was all orchestrated by one man - Maloney. He had been brought to the foot of the mountains to provide the Panthers with much-needed experience and composure.

And he was doing just that.

Previously, this club would have crumbled if they were suddenly without their chief playmaker. As talented as he may be, Matt Moylan isn't the type to lead from the front. But Maloney, well he's a different story. A larrikin by heart, but champion on the field. Penrith would have been a serious shot at the premiership had he not played in this year's Origin series.

Yet for the first time in years, the Panthers were burdened by representative duties. Four Panthers donned the sky blue - Cleary, Maloney, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Tyrone Peachey. Peachey and Campbell-Gillard weren't overly involved though, with the latter breaking his jaw in the first game of the series.Cleary and Maloney, on the other hand, returned to clubland fatigued and they never were able to recover.

As hard as he tried, battling neck and back complaints which will require surgery in the off-season, 32-year old Maloney soon became a liability. And he failed to stand up when it mattered. Locked up at 20-all against Cronulla in week two of the finals, many expected Penrith would, as they had all season, muster yet another stunning comeback victory.

They had done it so many times before, so with all the momentum and so much on the line, surely the league's biggest entertainers would do it again?

Maloney was barely sighted. Cleary's attempts at field goal sailed wide. And just like that, their season was over. It is unfair to blame their failures solely on Maloney though. Without him, Penrith aren't in the finals series at all. Panthers fans will be hoping that off-season surgery is just what Maloney needs to return to his best. The same can be said for Cleary, who was hampered by an ankle injury all year.

Youth and inexperience are no longer an excuse for this bunch of seasoned professionals. This is a side that has played three-straight finals series. There are New Zealand and Tongan internationals alongside their Origin trio, with Peachey off to the Gold Coast.

2019 is one of the biggest years in the club's recent history. For some, the poaching of Cleary has seen Penrith surpass Manly as the most hated club in the competition. Fair or not, all eyes will be on them.

To see if the club can reach the heights of premiership glory, guided by the father, son and holy Gould.

Turning point

After an understrength Penrith side demolished the Warriors 36-4 and pushed the Sharks in a 24-12 defeat, it was common knowledge that this was a serious premiership contender.

That was, until the Panthers headed up north to Brisbane.

And in the space of eighty minutes, statisticians had already declared Griffin's men no chance of taking out the title in 2018. No premier had ever conceded 50 points in a game during the regular season. Yet the Panthers had done just that, spectacularly collapsing to a 50-18 loss to Brisbane.

They proceeded to win their next three games against Manly, Canberra and the Gold Coast - and they were in true Penrith fashion. Victories that came after trailing by 18, 14 and 10 points respectively. But they covered up serious issues out west that would eventually catch up to them against Cronulla at Allianz Stadium.

What worked

It is hard to pinpoint any factor that truly worked. Such is how difficult it is to get an accurate reading of the 2018 Panthers.

Having already covered Penrith's miraculous last-minute victories in depth, it is important to note that many of these comebacks were sparked on their left edge. And that started with barnstorming second rower Viliame Kikau. The Fijian international announced himself as one of the competition's most devastating edge forwards.

Alongside Waqa Blake, who also experienced a breakout season, and Josh Mansour, Penrith's left edge proved their biggest threat in attack. And it wasn't as if their opposition didn't see it coming. Rather, they just found it so difficult to shut down the 119-kilogram Fijian monster and before they knew it, Kikau had popped a ball out to Blake who streaked away to score.

As alluded to earlier, Penrith's depth was again on show amidst a growing injury toll earlier in the season. The likes of Kaide Ellis, Wayde Egan, Jack Hetherington and Christian Crichton all made their debuts in 2018 and established themselves as regular first graders. Jarome Luai, in his limited appearances in the top grade, also announced himself as Cleary's likely halves partner when Maloney hangs up the boots.

What didn't

While it didn't always cost them, starts were still a concern for the Panthers. Too often, Penrith found themselves chasing margins and it ultimately came back to haunt them when Cronulla shot out to an 18-0 lead in the second week of the finals. What was particularly concerning was the nature of the tries that the mountain men are conceding early.

As potent as their left edge can be in attack, they can often be found wanting in defence. Kikau's size is a double-edged sword, as at times he was exposed for lacking the lateral movement needed to effectively defend on the edge. And with Maloney outside him, Moylan exploited the pair's weaknesses early in their semi-final meeting when he put Luke Lewis straight through a gaping hole.

Best player

For all the defensive weaknesses in his game, Maloney continued to stand up and deliver when Penrith needed him during the regular season. It is incredible to think that the 32-year old did most of this with a serious neck injury that should have seen him spend most of the year on the sidelines.

When Cleary went down with an MCL injury and was ruled out for eight weeks, many, myself included, believed that Penrith's season was over, yet Maloney proved exactly why he was targeted by Phil Gould in the first place as his experience and control guided the Panthers to win six of their next eight games without Cleary.

The pair struggled to gel at times, and will have an injury-effected off-season. But if they are fit and playing to their full potential, this is a team that will give the premiership a serious shake next year.

Rookies

Despite only playing a handful of games, Luai is the name on Panthers' fans lips heading into the off-season. The young five-eighth scored two tries and set up one in Penrith's 36-4 win over the Warriors when Maloney and Cleary were absent with Origin duties. While he wasn't as scintillating in the following week's 24-12 loss to Cronulla, he still proved the team's most dangerous threat in attack.

With fancy footwork and speed to burn, Luai shapes as the perfect partner to the more controlled Cleary.

Feeder club round-up

Despite a handful of reserve-grade players being handed their first-grade debuts in 2018, Penrith continued to excel in the lower grades. Penrith had the Minor Premiership wrapped up early in the NSWRL Intrust Super Premiership but fell short of taking out back-to-back titles after bowing out in the preliminary finals against Newtown. The result is still a testament to the strength of the club's development system.

Further down the line, the club's Under 20's side finished third in the regular season, pushing into the Grand Final by downing minor premiers Newcastle, but fell short against second-placed Cronulla in the decider. Incredibly, it meant that the Sharks were the architect of the Panthers' downfall in all three grades - Newtown being the Sharks' feeder in the ISP competition.

Looking ahead

Semi-final exits are all well and good but Griffin was sacked because the belief was that he could not deliver the Panthers a premiership. Cleary Sr now returns to the club he took to a preliminary final four years ago.

That was Penrith's best finish since 2004. And it was with a much weaker roster than what Cleary is gifted in 2019. With such high expectations, this could go two ways. Either Penrith finally lift and take out their first title since 2003, or they crumble under the pressure. And all the criticism will fall squarely on one man - Gus Gould.

It is hard to see Maloney continuing on at Penrith in 2020 given his recent injury setbacks. And that means that it is time for the Panthers to turn their potential into a premiership. Right now.  

Potential 2019 lineup

Based on current signings

1. Dylan Edwards
2. Josh Mansour
3. Waqa Blake
4. Dean Whare
5. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak
6. James Maloney
7. Nathan Cleary
8. James Tamou
9. Wayde Egan
10. Reagan Campbell-Gillard
11. Viliame Kikau
12. Isaah Yeo
13.  James Fisher-Harris

14.  Sione Katoa
15.  Trent Merrin
16.  Jack Hetherington
17.  Moses Leota

2018 Results

1
Penrith Panthers 24
Parramatta Eels 14
W
2
Penrith Panthers 18
South Sydney Rabbitohs 14
W
3
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 20
Penrith Panthers 18
L
4
North Queensland Cowboys 14
Penrith Panthers 33
W
5
Parramatta Eels 6
Penrith Panthers 12
W
6
Penrith Panthers 35
Gold Coast Titans 12
W
7
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 26
Penrith Panthers 22
L
8
Penrith Panthers 22
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 14
W
9
Penrith Panthers 20
North Queensland Cowboys 26
L
10
Newcastle Knights 18
Penrith Panthers 29
W
11
Penrith Panthers 16
Wests Tigers 2
W
12
Penrith Panthers 28
St George Illawarra Dragons 2
W
13
Penrith Panthers 0
BYE
14
Canberra Raiders 22
Penrith Panthers 23
W
15
Sydney Roosters 32
Penrith Panthers 6
L
16
Penrith Panthers 10
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 18
L
17
Penrith Panthers 36
Warriors 4
W
18
Penrith Panthers 12
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 24
L
19
Brisbane Broncos 50
Penrith Panthers 18
L
20
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 24
Penrith Panthers 28
W
21
Penrith Panthers 40
Canberra Raiders 31
W
22
Gold Coast Titans 16
Penrith Panthers 17
W
23
Penrith Panthers 12
Newcastle Knights 20
L
24
Warriors 36
Penrith Panthers 16
L
25
Melbourne Storm 16
Penrith Panthers 22
W
Finals Week 1
Penrith Panthers 27
Warriors 12
W
Finals Week 2
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 21
Penrith Panthers 20
L

By the Stats

32
Competition Points
15
Matches Won
0
Matches Drawn
9
Matches Lost
517
Points Scored
461
Points Conceded