NRL 2018: Penrith Panthers Preview

Are the Panthers set to take the next step or will they fall off the wagon in 2018?

NRL 2018

In 2014, a youthful and exciting Panthers NRL team made it all the way to the Grand Final playoff game against the Bulldogs. Despite losing narrowly in that encounter, most pundits thought that it was only a matter of time that the men from the foot of mountains got their hands on a Premiership.

But here we are three years later and the Panthers have not managed to emulate that performance. They have failed to make the top four since, and last year the Panthers came 7th on the back of a late season charge.

I suppose this momentum explains why the bookies have the Panthers ranked as 5th favourites for the upcoming season.

But I think the Panthers have been given a little too much credit and so I will be looking to take them on early in NRL 2018.

The main issue I have with the Panthers is the fact that there seems to be quite a bit of player discontent at Panthers HQ. Moylan and Cartwright were touted as the future of this club and within a couple of months both players were let go.

Plus, there is talk that the enigmatic Tyrone Peachey wants out too. So, although every club has its ups and downs, I am not sure coach Anthony Griffin has everyone singing from the same song sheet at Penrith.

The Stats

The key statistic that stands out to me is the number of missed tackles we saw from the Panthers in 2018. With an average of 32.9 per game, it is amazing that they didn’t concede more points in 2017.

Another area where the Panthers struggled in 2017 was in their ball control. With an average of 11 errors per game, the Panthers were the 5th worst team in the competition in that regard.

If a team is missing tackles and making errors, then they will always struggle and nothing in their recruitment makes me think they have addressed these issues. For example, their star recruit James Maloney conceded more penalties than any other player in 2017 while playing for the Sharks. He also made a ton of errors.

On a positive note however, the Panthers are strong runners of the ball and were in the top 5 in tackle breaks. Despite the missed tackle count blowing out, they are also 4th in terms of metres conceded, which shows they have good line speed in defence.

The Squad

The Panthers have let the following players leave the club and although no club can retain all its stars, I do think that there is a lot of talent amongst these 5 guys: Sitaleki Akauola, Bryce Cartwright, Leilani Latu, Matt Moylan and Mitch Rein.

While Cartwright and Moylan had seasons to forget in 2017, this should not be the form that people use when assessing how big a loss these players are.

Since the Panthers made that amazing run in 2014, Cartwright and Moylan have been at the centre of everything the Panthers have been trying to build. I therefore think that most pundits are overlooking just what an impact the loss of these two superstars will have on the Panthers.

Another recruitment decision that I find baffling was the release of Mitch Rein. This former Dragon was sensational when Griffin finally gave him a chance after Wallace was injured last year, but once again Griffin sent Rein packing up to the Gold Coast.

Although the Panthers have some exciting outside backs and a good forward pack, I think that their spine is not as great as the market believes.

Cleary is a gun, no doubt about it, but Edwards is still young and learning, while Wallace and Maloney are past their best in my opinion. I think that once Tyrone May returns from injury in Round 5, he will be pushing very hard for a spot in the starting 13.

I also think that Panthers have not gotten the value that they should have from big names such as Merrin and Tamou, both of whom fell off the representative radar in 2017. Both guys seem reluctant to roll up their sleeves and do the tough stuff, which again makes me question the coaching ability of Griffin.

The Draw

The Panthers do have a pretty reasonable draw and are lucky that they only have to play the Storm, Broncos and Roosters once. They also have seven matches against teams that finished in the bottom four in 2017. Therefore, I have seen some pundits label the Panthers draw easy.

But such an analysis assumes that 2018 is going to be a repeat of 2017, which I do not think is going to be the case. For example, some of the teams that I think will improve on their 2017 form are the Cowboys, Sharks, Sea Eagles, Raiders and Eels, all of whom the Panthers have to play twice.

So while it is not a horror draw, I don’t think it is correct to call the draw easy.

Areas Of Concern

While I know that a lot of the games’ current superstars are over 30, I do think that Maloney and Wallace are a strange pairing for Griffin to build a team around. Both of them were at their best 2-3 years ago and with niggling injuries mounting, this is the key area where I have a different opinion to the market.

But also think that the obvious issues at Panthers HQ are being under-estimated. For example, it is no secret that Tyrone Peachey wants out and if you saw his form in the trial match against the second-string Bulldogs team (a game the Panthers were flogged in!) then you can see Peachey is not a happy camper.

Gus Gould has staked a lot on Coach Griffin and so far, it looks like that wager hasn’t paid off.

If I was a Panthers fan, I would still be annoyed that the Panthers let Ivan Cleary go a couple of years ago, because I think they have never looked the same since.

The Verdict

The Panthers still have enough raw talent to do some damage in 2018, but I really don’t think they are genuine premiership contenders. At the price of 15.00 and 5th favourite with the bookies, I think the Panthers are overrated by the market and I will be looking to take them on early in 2018.

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