Panthers season preview: The quest for a fourth straight title begins

Nathan Cleary celebrates his match-winning try in 2023. Photo: NRL Images.
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What keeps them hungry?

What motivates them?

Two questions asked about the Penrith Panthers all off-season.

But true champion teams don’t look for answers to those questions. It just comes naturally.

The Chicago Bulls, Manchester United, New York Yankees… champion teams across different eras have always just been able to lift when most challenged.

It’s why Panthers coach Ivan Cleary brushed aside talk that a ‘theme’ similar to the Everest, Top Gun and Undisputed concepts of recent seasons was already in place for 2024.

As he explained at the season launch, those themes are only implemented when a legitimate Premiership run is detected; not to motivate already champion players before a ball has been kicked.

The Panthers celebrate the 2023 Premiership. Photo: NRL Images.

Penrith has already achieved what no team has done in the NRL era by producing a Premiership three-peat. This team does not need its credentials checked at the door and they are legitimate title favourites.

But challenges this season? There are many.

It would be extremely surprising if Penrith doesn’t have a slow start to the season.

There’s been a short pre-season, a trip to England for the World Club Challenge and no trial matches on home soil – a preparation that nobody would change for the world given the circumstances that creates it, but a difficult one nonetheless.

It doesn’t help that the Panthers face a pretty tough draw over the opening month of the competition, starting with an away trip to Melbourne who are round one specialists, before matches against past Grand Final rivals Parramatta and Brisbane and a visit to Allianz Stadium to tackle the Roosters.

There is an easier run through the middle part of the season where you would expect the Panthers to make up some ground, but it’s not going to be a cake walk.

Challenging too this year is the loss of Stephen Crichton.

Stephen Crichton. Photo: NRL Images.

It is perhaps the biggest departure of this Premiership era. Crichton is a true athlete, offers plenty of size and strength, and is a prolific try scorer. The Panthers have always covered for losses during this period but nobody can deny ‘Critta’ is an almost impossible man to replace.

Exactly how Penrith’s backline looks in the opening weeks still has some clouds over it, but it’s likely Taylan May will get a shot in the centres to replace Crichton with Sunia Turuva maintaining his wing spot.

Turuva is one of the key components to a successful 2024 – if he can grow from what was a stellar breakout season last year, he could become one of the most damaging finishers in the competition.

Key too is obviously the fitness of Nathan Cleary, the code’s best player and Penrith’s game manager. While new recruit Brad Schneider will likely wear the number seven jersey a few times this season, there’s no question keeping Cleary fit and firing is mission critical.

His halves partner in Jarome Luai will surely be up for a huge season, though it may be a delayed start as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery. All of Penrith’s big-name departing players in recent years have had strong final seasons with the club and I doubt Luai will be any different as he strives to leave his beloved Panthers on a high.

Jarome Luai and Ivan Cleary. Photo: NRL Images.

I’m excited to see how Daine Laurie is used this year, while it’s hard to imagine the Geyer family story not beginning a new and important chapter this year via Mav. It has the potential to be one of the year’s great storylines when he’s finally given his chance to follow in his father’s footsteps and play first grade for Penrith.

That will likely come off the bench initially, where there is a lot of intrigue. The likes of Laurie, Tyrone Peachey, Paul Alamoti, Matt Eisenhuth, Soni Luke and Luke Garner will all be sniffing around for spots, while Lindsay Smith is an obvious lock.

There are many challenges ahead this season, many of them obvious (such as the daunting representative period), many of them unpredictable and likely unexpected.

It must also be mentioned too that this is the final season at the current Penrith Stadium before the bulldozers come in ahead of a major upgrade.

For many players, there will be some added emotion and motivation there.

Certainly, it feels like the move out of the stadium acts as a line under this incredible era.
When all is said and done, it’s hard to imagine Penrith not being there when the whips are cracking again, and perhaps that ‘May the Fourth Be With You’ theme will get a run after all – at the right time, of course.

It all begins against Melbourne at AAMI Park on Friday, March 8.

Bring it on!

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