Penrith’s NRL season didn’t quite have a dream finish, but it’s far from a nightmare.
The club’s 2016 campaign, which ended at the hands of Canberra at GIO Stadium last Saturday night, is littered with highlights and more importantly, glimpses into a very bright future.
Despite last weekend’s loss, the mood amongst Penrith fans over the past few days has been largely optimistic, largely because there’s a feeling that 2016 was purely an entree – the main course is yet to come.
With one of the youngest and most inexperienced sides in the competition, it was inevitable that the hype and occasion would catch up with the Panthers eventually.
For me, it was a question of whether it’d happen against the Raiders last weekend or the competition’s best side, Melbourne, at AAMI Park this Saturday.
As it turns out Canberra gets to make that dreaded trip into Storm territory in an attempt to achieve the impossible.
I know we’ve heard it all before but there is something very special building at the foot of the Mountains.
From the top down, the Panthers are in very good shape.
Phil Gould’s influence continues to be a positive one, while CEO Brian Fletcher and Chairman Dave O’Neill are wonderful administrators taking the club in the right direction.
The appointment of coach Anthony Grffin, while questionable back in October, has proven to be a masterstroke. Griffin has instilled the discipline required at Penrith and made the tough decisions to set the squad up for the future.
On the field, the emergence of Matt Moylan, Bryce Cartwright and Nathan Cleary has been superb, and the good news is that all three are well positioned to play out their careers at Penrith.
Across the park, the Panthers have gone about building a squad that plays for each other and cares about the Penrith ‘brand’.
The inclusion of James Tamou next year will only further boost that culture given he comes from the highly successful North Queensland system under the guidance of Paul Green.
But it’s more than that.
You see, what gets missed when the big media players and experts talk about the quality play of Moylan, the unpredictability of Cartwright or the calmness of Cleary is the extraordinary work that goes on behind the scenes to foster the talent within those three players.
It’s the same work that has turned Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Leilani Latu into feared forwards who could well dominate the competition next year.
It’s the same work that converted Waqa Blake from a capable fill-in player to a centre who could well force either Dean Whare or Peta Hiku out of Penrith’s first grade team next season.
The work to build a culture of success at Penrith hasn’t happened overnight, but it is now reaping rewards.
It is a culture that focuses not only on what’s happening on the field or at training, but what’s happening in almost every minute of a player’s life.
It’s not about over-protection, it’s about caring and managing expectations.
There is very little doubt that the ‘premiership window’ has now been opened at Penrith.
Circumstances could change things. A bounce of the ball, an unexpected error or a lapse in concentration can very quickly take a rugby league game in another direction.
And off the field, well, we all know that the soap opera of rugby league never stops delivering.
But if this squad isn’t playing in Grand Finals or winning premierships at some stage in the next couple of years, something has gone very wrong somewhere.
I dare say that the 2017 squad being assembled at Penrith is one of the best teams the club has ever put on the field and without doubt the best since the 2003 premiership side.
The experience gained from 2016, combined with the added influence of Tamou, puts the Panthers in a very special place. It is a sensational time to be Penrith supporter.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Senior Writer. He has more than 15 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.