Here we are again: The beginning of March, when expectation is high and dreams are still in tact.
The 2019 season for the Penrith Panthers has something of an ‘unfinished business’ feeling to it.
First, surrounding coach Ivan Cleary who returns to lead the side after his sudden and unexpected departure at the end of 2015, and second, for this team that promised so much in 2018 only to have it taken away by the slimmest of margins when everything was on the line in September.
The second Cleary era at Penrith comes with some pressure, at least from outside forces. There will be plenty of people willing the Panthers to fail this season, angry at the way Cleary left the Tigers as part of a major coup to lure him back to the foot of the Mountains.
There’s nothing wrong with that, though. No more Mr Nice Guy, perhaps. It’s time for the Panthers to show some teeth and if they happen to get a little mud thrown at them along the way, so be it.
Cleary may be the new guy in town but at his disposal is a team that knows each other inside out. Only a handful of new players join Penrith’s squad this year and most of them would be unlikely to start the season in first grade, hoping to force their way into the team through either injury issues or standout performances in the lower grades.
Tyrell Fuimaono, Tim Grant, Malakai Watene-Zelezniak and Hame Sele are the new recruits, with two of them (Grant and Watene-Zelezniak) both having played for the Panthers before.
Sele could prove to be the key buy for the season ahead. Recruited from the Dragons, where he tasted first grade across the 2017 and 2018 seasons, he is a former NSW City representative that I’m told has trained the house down during pre-season and could even force his way into Ivan Cleary’s team for round one at a pinch.
There is no doubt that the side has lost some talent, and without doubt the biggest losses will be Tyrone Peachey and Trent Merrin – both leave with a mountain of experience and their places haven’t necessarily been filled with equal or better talent.
However, the departures of both players is countered by the fact that numerous players in the squad are on the verge of breakout seasons.
Dylan Edwards, whose 2018 season was cruelled by injury, has been given new motivation by Dallin Watene-Zelezniak’s clear desire to play fullback, and there’s little doubt that it will spur him on to great things this season.
The likes of Waqa Blake, Viliame Kikau, James Fisher-Harris and Isaah Yeo, who have all become household names in rugby league circles in the past couple of seasons, are also primed for big years. The little mistakes each of them has in their game have slowly been weeded out, and 2019 could be the year they make it all count. Kikau will have to cool his heels at the start of the year after suffering a knee injury in the trials, but should be right by round four.
Of course there will be plenty of focus on Penrith’s halves, with James Maloney and Nathan Cleary to steer the ship once again in 2019. Maloney will have benefited from a long off-season after carrying a range of niggling injuries last year, and his experience this season will be crucial.
Cleary meanwhile has the added pressure of being coached by his father, but nothing seems to phase the New South Wales number 7 and it’s unlikely to cause him too much bother on the field.
Experience will play a crucial role in the season and Dean Whare – now approaching veteran status – along with Josh Mansour and Maloney, will be crucial in this regard, especially when it comes to the young players Penrith tend to blood each and every season.
The Panthers probably lack some firepower off the bench, and are a little unsettled in the number 9 jumper. They will most likely start the year with Sione Katoa at hooker, while Wayde Egan is also waiting in the wings, but there are clouds over whether either has what it takes to lock down the position long-term.
Penrith’s draw is reasonable and there’s no clear areas of concern, apart from a period towards the end of the season where the side spends three weeks on the road taking on the Broncos, Cowboys and defending premiers the Roosters. Should the Panthers be fighting for a top eight spot (or even a top four position) at that time of the season, those three games could provide the toughest of tests.
There is much to like about Penrith in 2019, but much to fear too. Any serious injury toll could well and truly destroy the season, with the side’s depth probably a little shallower than in recent seasons.
But there is a settled feeling about the team, and talk of a strong and happy pre-season with the painful departure of Anthony Griffin towards the end of last season well and truly behind them.
Let the roller coaster ride begin…
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.