The storylines that defined Penrith’s season

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Nathan Cleary celebrates a try with his teammates. Photo: Megan Dunn

Teen star’s ironic rise to first grade

Nathan Cleary wasn’t even featured in the 2016 Season Guide for Penrith, but he ended up playing a key role in guiding them to Finals football in 2016.

Last October the Cleary household was rocked when Dad Ivan was sacked by the Panthers and replaced with Anthony Griffin.

But six months later a new story was emerging from within the Cleary fold when 18-year-old Nathan was handed his first grade debut.

Too young? Too inexperienced? The obvious potential issues with blooding a halfback so young were there for all to see, but Cleary showed no signs of pressure and didn’t look back once given his debut against Melbourne half-way through the season.

The teenager knows he wouldn’t have been handed his first grade debut so early if his Dad was still coaching, so the irony of his rise to Penrith’s famous number seven jumper is incredible.

A Dally M Rookie of the Year contender, Cleary gave Penrith fans a glimpse into the future (and rugby league fans a throwback to the past given the similarities he shares with his father) with his cool, calm and collected approach to leading the Panthers around the park.

The experience he gained in 2016 will put him in huge stead for the future

Griffin’s gambles pay off

Panthers coach Anthony Griffin. Photo: Megan Dunn
Panthers coach Anthony Griffin. Photo: Megan Dunn

Just call him Kenny Rogers.

Anthony Griffin rolled the dice so many times in season 2016 and most of the time, he came up trumps.

Gamble number one was appointing Matt Moylan as captain ahead of experienced campaigners such as Peter Wallace and Trent Merrin. It paid significant dividends with Moylan emerging as a true leader by the time the end of the season rolled around.

Then there was the huge decisions to drop big-name players James Segeyaro and Jamie Soward to reserve grade within weeks of each other, ultimately forcing their departures from the club.

With the season still alive at the mid-way point of the year, many saw it as a bizarre call for a coach in his first season at the club, but it proved to be a masterstroke. Griffin clearly saw that a change was needed and while he knew criticism from fans and the media would come, he was willing to back himself.

Griffin gambled with 18-year-old Nathan Cleary and won, and perhaps his biggest success story was repairing his fractured relationship with Peter Wallace.

Not only did Griffin give Wallace a new lease on life at hooker, but by the end of the year the veteran Penrith junior had signed a new deal with the club.

Just like his one-time mentor Wayne Bennett, Griffin is cool and calm under pressure but clearly knows what he wants and has no issue making it happen.

The fall of James Segeyaro 

James Segeyaro in action against the Gold Coast. Photo: Megan Dunn
James Segeyaro in action against the Gold Coast. Photo: Megan Dunn

Named Hooker of the Year at the 2014 Dally M Awards, the fall from grace of James Segeyaro at Penrith was startling.

After a disappointing 2015 season, Segeyaro was keen to prove his worth at Penrith this season, particularly given his contract was up for renewal. But his year started in disappointing fashion after he broke his arm against Canberra in the opening round of the competition.

While he did return to first grade, his 2016 season in the NRL was short lived after coach Anthony Griffin dumped him to reserve grade in late May. Apart from his poor form, the Panthers also started to become concerned about Segearyo’s behaviour off the field, particularly after he was featured in an infamous photograph taken at a dinner at The Star casino in Sydney.

On June 23, the Panthers officially released Segeyaro so he could take up an opportunity in England.

“I want to thank James for his service to the Panthers,” coach Anthony Griffin said.

“For the last three and a half seasons he has been a valued member of the club and we wish him all the best for the next chapter in his career.”

Penrith’s proud Blues 

Matt Moylan fronts the media after being selected for the Blues.
Matt Moylan fronts the media after being selected for the Blues.

When Josh Mansour and Matt Moylan were selected to represent New South Wales in State of Origin this year, it not only gave them an excellent opportunity to play on rugby league’s biggest stage, but it matured them at club level.

Both came back from their Origin experience better players, and emerged as two of the most dangerous players in the game.

Mansour in particular grew another leg, with his powerful runs at the start of sets becoming a real highlight of his game.

Moylan had a delayed start to the season due to injury and had the added pressure of being named captain, but once Origin came around, he took the leadership role to another level and became one of the game’s most feared attacking players. He was named at five-eighth for Origin III in Sydney after initially losing his fullback spot to James Tedesco, and passed the test with flying colours.

Both Moylan and Mansour have most likely secured their Origin spots for years to come, and given the way they came back from representative duties this year, there is no doubting Penrith will benefit from any such selections.

Jamie Soward departs 

Jamie Soward. Photo: 77 Media
Jamie Soward. Photo: 77 Media

Panthers coach Anthony Griffin stunned the NRL community back in June when he dumped veteran half Jamie Soward to reserve grade. It was a huge gamble by the man they call ‘Hook’, who favoured a makeshift halves combination of Bryce Cartwright and rookie Nathan Cleary ahead of Soward, who had steered Penrith into the Finals in 2014 but saw his form drop off in 2015.

While Soward would turn out to play in reserve grade for the Panthers for a few weeks, the writing was on the wall and he never returned to first grade – his last game being the 24-6 loss to Melbourne in round 13.

On June 30, the Panthers and Soward parted ways.

“How playing careers begin and end is not an exact science but he has recognised there are a number of emerging talents at the club who deserve the chance to progress,” Panthers boss Phil Gould said at the time.

“Jamie has been wonderful for the Panthers and has done everything we have ever asked of him. He has been a leader, on and off the field, and played a key role in the development of our younger players.”

Soward signed a deal with the London Broncos, where he played the remainder of the 2016 season.

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