2019 Preview: Penrith Panthers

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Josh Robertson looks at how Penrith's 2019 campaign is shaping up as our NRL club preview series continues.

There's a sense of déjà vu hitting Sydney's west as the Panthers come into 2019 with a familiar face taking up the coaching role yet again in Ivan Cleary. Penrith were hoping for a season in 2018 where they didn't need to be the comeback kids but unfortunately it was another season of leaving it late - sometimes to their own detriment.

Last year saw the Panthers finish in fifth spot, which for most teams would be called a successful season - but to general manager Phil Gould it was anything but perfect. In the run to the finals, coach Anthony Griffin got his marching orders, and the Penrith were led into the finals by rookie coach Cameron Ciraldo, who had served Griffin as assistant throughout the year to that point.

Having started the 2018 season with five wins in the first six rounds, they will want to replicate that start to the season - although minus the 14-0 comebacks in the first two rounds. The Panthers again open up their season with a Sunday afternoon local derby against Parramatta at Panthers Stadium, but only play there just twice in the first six rounds, with a third home game at the club's alternative home across the Blue Mountains, Carrington Park in Bathurst. That clash against the Storm will be a telling part of the early season. Penrith have to make every road trip except south to Victoria in 2019, so how they travel will be a big part of how they fare this season - and trips to Townsville and Brisbane inside the final four rounds will be key to where they finish the premiership season at.

The Panthers have kept the incoming transfer action to a minimum this season, with just three signings including the return of Tim Grant, and the additions of Hame Sele and Tyrell Fuimaono. The losses though for the Panthers are quite big - Corey Harawira-Naera and Tyrone Peachey departing for the Bulldogs and Titans respectively.

Why they'll win it

Penrith have one of the best young teams on paper, and there is talent right across the park with some great speed at the back in Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Dylan Edwards, matched up with the size and strength of Josh Mansour on the wing, and then the halves of James Maloney and Nathan Cleary. There's plenty of punch in a formidale pack too, including key man Viliame Kikau who has both size, strength, speed and ball skills. Coach Cleary will be hoping for a quick recovery from 'Bill' after he sustained a medial ligament injury in last Saturday's trial against South Sydney - he's expected back sometime in April.

Under Ivan Cleary, the Panthers have been as far as the preliminary final in the past, and he can work with a host of players including son Nathan, and can no doubt be the man to get the team firing for 80 minutes instead of just the last 60.

Why they won't

To win an NRL premiership you need to play for 80 minutes for up to 30 weeks including finals, and over the past two years the Panthers have generally only turned up for the second half, and it takes a strong change in mindset to put that out of the minds. This will need to happen from Round 1.

The other impact on Penrith not fulfilling their potential this year is that they have lost some key depth players like Christian Crichton, Corey Harawira-Naera and experienced rep forward Trent Merrin. This could be a big issue for the Panthers should injuries hit to key players, and they'll need to rely on younger players coming through.

2019 Draw

Key player - Nathan Cleary

The skilled halfback was the centre of rumours that he would ditch the black, red, green and yellow jumper, but now he's at the Panthers long-term it will be interesting to see how he performs when coached by his father. Cleary had a solid season for Penrith last year that was interrupted by both injuries and Origin call-ups, limiting his consistency. If the halfback has an injury-free season then he will be key to their chances in 2019.

Rookies to watch

Having one of the largest junior sporting catchments anywhere in the world means that the Panthers are always strong in the rookie category and the current crop is no different, with players like Caleb Aekins who made a huge statement in his only career game last year. In the clubs development squad, the Blore brothers have huge raps on them, with both Dean and Shawn having played for the Junior Kiwis and Kangaroos last year respectively.

Player Movement

Gains: Tim Grant, Malakai Watene-Zelezniak (Wests Tigers), Tyrell Fuimaono (Rabbitohs), Hame Sele (Dragons)

Losses: Christian Crichton, Corey Harawira-Naera (Bulldogs), Tyrone Peachey (Titans), Maika Sivo (Eels), Corey Waddell (Sea Eagles), Trent Merrin (Leeds), Peter Wallace, Tim Browne (retired)

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