Five burning questions ahead of Penrith’s 2018 NRL campaign

James Maloney at Panthers training on Monday. Photo: Penrith Panthers

The countdown to the 2018 NRL season is underway, and the Panthers are carrying the weight of a city behind them this year. We’ve compiled the five key questions that will be answered in 2018 as the Panthers carve a path to September…

Will Bryce Cartwright live up to the hype?

Cartwright’s 2017 season was derailed by injury and off-field scandal, and he spent plenty of his time away from the game getting things right and preparing for a better 2018. The 23-year-old has kicked off the new year with the birth of little Koa, hopefully an indication that a year to remember is looming. Cartwright has plenty of hype surrounding him as well as plenty of pressure given the surname he carries. This year, it’s time to put the past to bed and live up to the expectations of the coaching staff, fellow players and the fan base. He still has the chance to become a Penrith great, but another up and down year could put his future with the Panthers in significant danger.

Bryce Cartwright. Photo: Megan Dunn

Will Nathan Cleary go to another level in 2018?

Cleary is considered one of the real long-term stars of the NRL but too much time is being wasted talking about his future beyond his current Penrith contract. While it’s probably unlikely to be sorted out any time soon, an extension of Cleary’s current deal would certainly kill that storyline and allow the youngster to focus on his football. However, the 20-year-old’s level head should ensure he continues to solidify his spot as a true star, and one of the big questions will be whether he jumps into representative duties with the New South Wales Origin side this year.

Nathan Cleary. Photo: Megan Dunn

Will the Maloney-Moylan swap prove a winner?

James Maloney started his life as a Panther on Monday when he trained in muggy conditions at Jamison Park. All eyes will be on the 31-year-old this season, primarily because of his record as a winner at the Warriors, Roosters and Sharks. But fans who remain skeptical of Maloney’s signing and the departure of Matt Moylan will be keen to see how the swap deal unfolds at both Penrith and Cronulla. There is no doubt that the Panthers needed to add more experience and maturity to their spine and Maloney brings that as well as a winning attitude that has seen him win premierships at two clubs. How he partners with Nathan Cleary will be critical to Penrith’s success in 2018.

James Maloney training on Monday. Photo: Penrith Panthers

Can Sam McKendry lock down a first grade spot?

Big Sam McKendry has seen very little football in recent years, with ACL injuries cruelling what should be the strongest years of his career. The 28-year-old is back training and hopeful of brushing aside the tag of Penrith’s forgotten forward. He was even left out of the NRL’s predicted Penrith team for round one. McKendry is working hard to prove he still has plenty of football left in him, but another serious injury could end his career. It will be a defining year for McKendry, who has gone from the heights of representing New Zealand to the lows of watching Penrith’s growth as a squad from the sidelines.

Sam McKendry

Can Anthony Griffin finally win over the critics?

Despite taking Penrith to two consecutive Finals campaigns, the jury still remains out on Anthony Griffin. The fan base is split, still holding on to the cruelty of Ivan Cleary’s dismissal in 2015 and skeptical about Griffin’s strategies especially in attack. A third consecutive tilt at the Premiership via a Finals appearance should silence those still critical of Griffin given Penrith haven’t played three consecutive years of Finals since 1989-1991. The former Broncos coach certainly has a strong squad at his disposal so unless there’s any serious injuries, nothing should stand in the way of a serious premiership campaign.

Panthers coach Anthony Griffin. Photo: Megan Dunn

Our predicted round one Penrith team: Dylan Edwards, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Dean Whare, Waqa Blake, Josh Mansour, James Maloney, Nathan Cleary, James Tamou, Peter Wallace, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Corey Harawira-Naera, Isaah Yeo, Trent Merrin. Interchange: Sam McKendry, Bryce Cartwright, Tyrone Peachey, James Fisher-Harris.