The Penrith Panthers will seek to achieve a rare feat in 2022 – back-to-back NRL titles. What does the season have in store?
The big question
The biggest question mark hanging over the season is whether the Panthers have the hunger and desire to get up and go again after taking out the 2021 title.
There’s already been hints that one thing driving the squad this year will be returning to Penrith and playing in front of home fans.
Home-town fans missed out on seeing the Panthers lift the trophy in Sydney last year due to the competition’s relocation to Brisbane, so there’s an added incentive to win the title again in 2022.
The big improver
He’s already a household name, but Stephen Crichton is the player who has the opportunity to do big things in 2022.
After shifting between wing and centre, and even fullback, during last season, Crichton will have more of a chance to establish himself as a permanent centre this year.
His unforgettable intercept in the Grand Final will be forever remembered, and it’s surely given him the confidence to have his best season ever in 2022.
The key man
It’s no surprise that Nathan Cleary will again hold the key for Penrith this season.
Cleary silenced any lingering doubters when he produced a standout season in 2021, despite being hampered by a shoulder injury for the second half of the year.
Now a Premiership winner, focus will start to turn on how long the 24-year-old can sustain such dominant command over the competition.
Should he produce another standout year in 2022, the conversation will begin about Cleary going down as one of the game’s greats.
The new recruits
Penrith have been reasonably quiet in the player market, continuing to focus on developing from within and retaining key members of the existing squad.
But the important additions of Sean O’Sullivan from the Warriors and Chris Smith from the Bulldogs will provide much-needed depth this season.
O’Sullivan is likely to be the main halves back-up now that Matt Burton and Tyrone May have moved on, and he’s set to get plenty of game time, especially during the Origin period.
The main departures
Penrith have been weakened somewhat by the departure of key players including Matt Burton, Kurt Capewell, Tyron May and Brent Naden.
Coach Ivan Cleary will be hoping his squad remains relatively healthy during the season, with the side’s depth to be significantly tested.
There will also be plenty of focus on the likes of Viliame Kikau and Api Koroisau, who depart the club at the end of the 2022 season.
The final word
While back-to-back titles is a big ask, Penrith has kept its spine intact and remains a relatively young squad.
There’s an argument that 2023 will see the Panthers significantly weakened and perhaps a mini re-build is on the cards, but it’s hard to imagine the side won’t be there when the whips are cracking in 2022.
Another driving factor will be Panthers Stadium – it’s the final season at the iconic venue, and there’ll be a fair bit of emotion around that storyline this season, especially towards the end of the year.
Penrith begin their 2022 campaign against Manly on Thursday, March 10.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Senior Writer. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.