It was a season in which injuries ruined any real hope of a finals finish; a season in which a new management and coaching structure stamped its authority and declared that the time for change at Penrith was now.
The Panthers finished second last, but 2012 was about more than results on the field.
After a dramatic year of highs and lows, the Weekender today looks back at the big moments of the season as they unfolded…
February 18: Season launches in style
A new era at Penrith officially kicks off with a season launch at the EVAN Theatre.
Panthers boss Phil Gould declares: “This is a very important period in the history of our club”.
And in perhaps the first indication that all was not going to be smooth on the field in 2012, Gould says: “A lot of what has been achieved over the last nine months… the benefits won’t be seen for years to come”.
The night before the season launch, the Panthers gave some hope to their long-suffering fans, with a comprehensive win over Parramatta in the Battle of the West trial match at Centrebet Stadium.
March 3: Gordon crashes out
The Panthers are dealt their first major blow for the season in the opening round match against the Bulldogs, with Michael Gordon suffering a broken fibula.
It’s a crushing blow for Gordon, who missed the majority of the 2011 season due to injury.
On the field, the Panthers go down to the Bulldogs but win two of their first four matches, crushing the Eels and Roosters away from home.
May 8: Jennings dropped
Penrith fans are rocked when coach Ivan Cleary delivers a selection bombshell, dropping superstar Michael Jennings to the NSW Cup.
Considered a brave and courageous move at the time, Jennings was dropped due to poor form, though his attitude was also being brought into question.
Incredibly, Jennings is selected for the NSW State of Origin side just 24 hours after lining up for Windsor in reserve grade, perhaps diluting Cleary’s aim to send a message to the top grade squad about discipline and respect.
May 11: Gould pleads for patience
In the midst of the Jennings controversy, Panthers boss Phil Gould reveals the club is facing a major salary cap crisis.
“We have some salary cap issues going forward, which are things that have to unravel over time,” he tells the Weekender.
“We’ve got some heavily back-ended deals and that impinges on our recruitment potential now and in the future.”
May 14: A breakthrough win
Struggling for form and with the Jennings sacking fresh in their mind, Penrith are desperate for a win when they play St George-Illawarra in Monday night football at Centrebet Stadium.
Having not won in six weeks, the Panthers finally get to sing their team song when Lachlan Coote slots an extra time field goal to secure a 13-12 win.
The victory breaks a long losing streak at home and comes as a massive relief to players, officials and fans.
May 27: Lewis dumped as skipper
Some would call it the beginning of the end.
As Penrith prepares to take on Manly at Centrebet Stadium, Ivan Cleary stuns Luke Lewis by stripping him of the club’s captaincy during the State of Origin period.
Kevin Kingston is appointed temporary captain but in the days that follow, it is clear that Lewis may not return to the top job. Lewis responds to his sacking in the best way possible, producing a first class performance in the side’s win over Manly.
June 11: It’s a wash-out
One of the most memorable games of the year is played at Centrebet Stadium, not because of the result, but the extraordinary weather. Just a few thousand fans turn out in torrential rain to watch the Warriors beat the Panthers.
June 12: Coote dropped
Ivan Cleary drops another selection bombshell, this time dropping Lachlan Coote to reserve grade for the game against the Titans.
Coote is ultimately recalled to the first grade side at the last minute, but the initial decision rocks the playing group and re-affirms Cleary’s mission to develop strong discipline and consistency at Penrith.
June 23: Panthers go pink
The Panthers continue to lead the way in supporting the Women in League round, with a fantastic series of events leading up to the game against arch rivals Parramatta in round 16.
The Panthers play in their full pink strip, but the end result is not good, with Penrith giving up an 18-6 lead to go down 19-18 to the Eels in extra time.
July 9: Lewis walks out
With their season slipping away, the Penrith club is rocked to the core by one of the biggest rugby league stories of the year.
Word starts to come through in the early hours of Monday, July 9 that Luke Lewis wants out of the Panthers.
Phil Gould calls a 2pm press conference, where he sensationally announces that Lewis has sought a release, and it has been granted. It’s a stunning announcement – just months earlier Lewis had been appointed captain in what he described as one of the proudest moments of his life.
A 2003 premiership winner and a true club stalwart, Lewis was much-loved amongst the fans and the announcement of his departure caused a significant rift in the fan base, which was devastated by the news.
Gould says: “Sometimes personal ambitions and personal goals don’t marry up with what the club is going through at the time”. Mystery still remains over the real reasons behind Lewis’ departure.
July 22: A moment of madness
Travis Burns pulls on a Penrith jersey for the last time, but doesn’t realise it. In a gritty game at Centrebet Stadium, the Panthers outlast the Roosters to record an impressive win but there’s a much bigger talking point out of the game.
Already on report for a ‘chicken wing’ tackle, Burns produces a sickening high tackle on Roosters forward Martin Kennedy late in the game.
Burns is sent off, but the bigger story comes when he fronts the NRL judiciary. He’s wiped out for the rest of the season, and the start of 2013, by a whopping total suspension of 12 weeks.
Burns ultimately quits the Panthers and is to play with English Super League club Hull next season.
July 28: A memorable win
Playing in their third golden point game of the season, Penrith delivers a magical win to their fans against the highly-fancied Cronulla at Shark Park.
The Panthers score a last gasp try to level the match and then Luke Walsh slots a field goal in extra time to secure a one-point miracle win.
The game is shrouded in controversy, however, following a number of refereeing decisions that seemed to go against the Sharks.
August 12: McRae joins the departed
Penrith fans are shocked to hear the news that veteran ground announcer Scott McRae has been dumped for the 2013 season.
McRae has been at the helm of the game day experience at Penrith Stadium for 15 years. He tells fans the news just prior to the Panthers vs Raiders game kicking off in round 23.
August 26: Farewell, and thank you
There’s emotional scenes at Centrebet Stadium when Penrith farewells club legend Luke Lewis along with Travis Burns and Cronulla-bound Michael Gordon. Penrith produce a strong win over the Gold Coast, helping to send the stadium int
o party mode.
Lewis spends close to an hour and a half thanking fans during a lap of honour after the game, indicative of the type of man he is and the dedication he had to the Panthers.
Departing ground announcer Scott McRae also joins the lap of honour, as Penrith close off a massive chapter in their history.
August 31: Time to reflect
Penrith fights to the end in their final match of the season against Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium, but ultimately goes down 19-12. It ends a drama-filled year, but begins Ivan Cleary’s battle to make 2013 a successful season.
Player of the Year
The hardest possible award to pick in 2012 with very few players producing consistent seasons. Kevin Kingston just pips the field, producing an incredible 1,070 tackles during the season, missing just two matches and delivering some great attacking skill that many thought may have been past him.
Rookie of the Year
Winger Josh Mansour proved to be an outstanding find, and will be a permanent figure in the Panthers’ line-up over the next few years. He’s big, tough, strong and has a powerful attacking game.
Moment of the Year
Lachlan Coote’s field goal to sink the Dragons in extra time in round 12. It came after a week of controversy, and was a breakthrough moment when many had lost faith.