Great expectations: Panthers set to deliver for fans in 2017

Ready to go: Nathan Cleary, Matt Moylan and James Tamou. Photo: Melinda Jane
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Not since facing the enormous task of defending a Premiership title in 2004 has Penrith entered a season with such high expectations of what they will deliver on the field.

There was hope after 2010 and real belief after 2014, but this time it feels different.
This time it’s serious.

The Panthers enter the 2017 National Rugby League (NRL) season as one of the Premiership favourites.

This is a squad so meticulously built, right to the very last detail.

It is a squad with a Plan B and a Plan C at almost every turn.

Not even did the off-season injury to one of the club’s most feared players, Josh Mansour, lower the expectations.

The injury eased the headache facing coach Anthony Griffin just slightly.
With four players having legitimate claims to starting centre spots this year (Tyrone Peachey, Peta Hiku, Waqa Blake and Dean Whare), Mansour’s injury and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak’s pre-season stumble allows Griffin to test different combinations.

The Auckland Nines and the pre-season trials did however have Griffin reaching for the Panadol once again, with Dylan Edwards also making a claim for a spot in the backline come round one.

Headaches, or should we call them welcome challenges, like this litter Griffin’s team in 2017.

At times, they won’t be headaches and challenges, they’ll be resolutions.

For example, if either Te Maire Martin or Nathan Cleary were to go down in the halves, Peter Wallace makes a simple switch from number nine to seven, and new recruit Mitch Rein slots into the hooker role.

Or Matt Moylan may shift into the halves, allowing Watene-Zelezniak to play fullback and either Dylan Edwards or Michael Oldfield to slot into a wing spot. The opportunities are endless.

The battle for forward positions is equally tight.

Let’s accept, for example, that James Tamou and Reagan Campbell-Gillard are Penrith’s starting props, with Bryce Cartwright and Isaah Yeo in the second row, Trent Merrin at lock and Peter Wallace at hooker.

That leaves Sitaleki Akauola, Tim Browne, James Fisher-Harris, Leilani Latu, Mitch Rein and Moses Leota all fighting for bench spots.

Plus, a plethora of talent still coming through the ranks.

At full strength, Penrith could quite legitimately have three former internationals in Sam McKendry, Dean Whare and Peta Hiku playing reserve grade, and still field a first grade side with the potential to threaten for the premiership.

However, injuries during the pre-season have already shown that being at full strength is almost impossible for the length of a season.

Fans are gearing up for a big year at Pepper Stadium in 2017. Photo: Megan Dunn

In the battle for the spots that are considered contentious, we tend to forget about the superstars who have already locked down their spot.

Matt Moylan, a year older and with representative football now part of his kit bag, will be better than ever.

Nathan Cleary, after a dynamic debut season, seems so grounded that ‘second year syndrome’ would be nearly impossible to contract.

With Bryce Cartwright poised to deliver a scintillating year now that he has some personal issues behind him, and Trent Merrin in some of the best form of his career, Penrith have crafted a team not just capable of winning one title, but many. They have the foundations of a dynasty.

But here’s the thing – premiership windows do not stay open for long, and Grand Finals are not won on paper.

There is no point in Anthony Griffin trying to convince his team to ignore the expectations that sit on top of them.

Tyrone Peachey is likely to start at centre for the Panthers. Photo: Megan Dunn

If anything, he should embrace it, while carefully managing the situation.

Griffin has such a good side on his hands that he is able to instil a disciplined and competitive approach that will only grow the team, and manage the egos that can creep into a side with such hype around it.

No position is safe. Griffin has made that clear in the past and has the cattle behind him to drive the message home even further in 2017.

Penrith’s draw is also reasonably friendly. They’ll be without their rep players just once during the Origin period, and have an incredible stretch of home games at the back end of the season should they need to knuckle down and get the job done.

Season 2017 is very much an extension of Penrith’s 2016 campaign.

But a year older, and wiser, the Panthers should no longer fear oppositions.

If the Nines and pre-season trials proved anything, it’s that Griffin is attempting to prove the old adage that ‘defence wins premierships’ is true.

Isaah Yeo in action against the Eels last weekend. Photo: Megan Dunn

Penrith’s defence against the Bulldogs in the opening trial, despite the searing heat at Belmore, was incredibly impressive.

The 2016 season showed the first signs of this mentality. The Panthers provided plenty of heartstopping finishes, much of the time because their defensive effort kept them in the game until the dying moments.

At times, they lacked execution and maturity to close out the game and win it, but Griffin would have worked on that considerably over the off-season.

There is much to be excited about at Penrith this year.

And while very rarely does a rugby league season play out the way we expect it to, there are many genuine reasons to believe that Penrith could be running out onto ANZ Stadium in October.

Anything but a top four finish this season would be considered a disappointment.

Nathan Cleary is set for a big second season in first grade. Photo: Megan Dunn

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