It’s fair to say that the Penrith Panthers have been extremely busy in the player market so far in 2013. They have publicly chased Australian 5/8 Thurston as well NSW 5/8 Todd Carney and although they came up short in both efforts, media reports indicate they came within a whisker of securing each.
After a less than consistent start to 2013, Gus, Cleary and co have urged fans to look to the future after trumpeting a 5 year plan. In 2012 they signed a big group of fringe first graders and a star in Sika Manu and moved on stars Michael Gordon, Luke Lewis and Michael Jennings.
After freeing up a massive amount in their salary cap, and with the cap itself increasing in 2014 the Panthers have plenty of room to move and have targeted a host of off contract players.
The Panthers have already signed former NSW prop Brent Kite, former NSW 5/8 Jamie Soward and versatile New Zealander Elijah Taylor as well as resigning Josh Mansour. They are also rumoured to have all but secured young Raider’s half Sam Williams, although as Panthers fans will tell you, they’ve heard that before.
Only today the men from Penrith have been linked to Rugby superstar Israel Folau. Gus Gould has chased and probably needs to secure a marquee signing to excite fans after moving on arguably the club’s three biggest stars in 2012. In Folau the Panthers are chasing one of the most marketable and talented players in any code of football. They have BIG money to offer and in Gould they have one of the best negotiators in the business.
The papers had Thurston and Carney moving to the Panthers and I believe it was only fierce loyalty that kept both players at their current clubs. The Sharks gave Carney a second (or is it 5th) chance, taking a punt on the extremely talented yet risky player and Carney repaid that faith signing a 5 yr deal with the Cronulla club. Thurston is the face of the Cowboys and has strong roots in the community working with young Indigenous kids.
In Soward and potentially Williams the Panthers have a brand new halves combination for 2014. Although they are not Thurston and Carney they a definite improvement on 2013’s pairing of, well every combination of every potential half in the club.
Soward is a former NSW 5/8 and lead the Dragons to a premiership. Although he has been unable to rediscover the form that won him a Blue’s jersey, Soward is a very capable player. He also brings passion to the club both on and off the field. He’s a polarising figure, some love him, most hate him, but everyone knows him.
In Williams (assuming he signs) the Panthers have a young, talented half with a huge upside. He’s got the potential to be a very handy first grader as proven by his selection in this season’s City Country clash.
A halves pairing of Williams and Soward would also allow Lachlan Coote to return to fullback. The Panthers have struggled in the position since Coote’s move to the halves (and unfortunate season ending injury) and the departure of Michael Gordon. Although youngster Matt Moylan has had an incredible start to his NRL career and may cause a selection headache. Coote moving back to fullback will assist both Williams and Soward as Coote is a proven finisher. Moylan may move to the wing if he keeps up his early form.
Although Brent Kite is coming toward the end of his career he is still a very handy buy. His signing won’t sell club memberships or cause fans to line up in the streets to celebrate but he will surely move into a mentoring role for the club’s younger forwards. Kite and Grant will form a formidable front row combo with Nigel Plum likely to join the front row rotation.
Elijah Taylor is likely to slot straight into the Panther’s side either at centre or in the back row. Taylor and Manu would form a fairly imposing second row combo or Taylor could slot into centre allowing Lewis Brown to return to the back row.
With a huge list of players off contract the Panthers will have to make some tough decisions, none more-so than what to do with current captain Kevin Kingston. If reports are to be believed, the Panthers are considering moving their captain on. I believe the Panthers will move to resign Moylan and Plum sooner rather than later although apart from that, and possibly David Simmons, most will leave at season’s end.
The success of the Panther’s recruitment drive could come down on the club’s ability to secure a marquee signing. One could argue Soward is a marquee signing considering his achievements however I don’t think he makes the cut. He is a good player and on his day can single handedly win games, something the Panthers have lacked so far this season but Panther’s fans met the signing with mixed emotions.
If the club us able to recruit Israel Folau then it has more than met all expectations but as no one can really tell what Folau is thinking or where he could end up I wouldn’t be putting all of my eggs in the Israel basket. As it stands the Panthers have improved their squad for 2014, which is the whole idea of signing players. They went backwards talent wise from 2012 to 2013, but have moved forward for 2014.
The general reaction of fans seems to be a pass mark at best and most expect the recruitment drive to continue. I expect four or five names to be added before season’s end as I believe a large portion of the off contract players will be released. 2014 looks exciting for Penrith but unless it can secure a player of Folau’s ability, it looks like just another step in the club’s 5 year plan for mine.
As I type this a rumour has hit the media that Benji Marshall will ask for a release from his contract at the Tigers. This is all talk at the moment but if there is ANY truth to this expect Gus to be all over it. After missing out of Carney and Thurston, I doubt Gus will fail three times in a row. For the record I don’t believe the rumour and fully expect Benji to stay with the Tigers but I know a few Panthers’ fans who will hope otherwise.