Daniel Nichols continues his NRL season reviews. Today it is the Penrith Panthers in the spotlight.
Fan Prediction: 12th
What Went Wrong: Before the season started the Panthers sent superstar centre Michael Jennings to the Roosters, and even paid a majority of his wage to do so. Fans were understandably angry, as they had seen club legend Luke Lewis and former NSW fullback Michael Gordon leave late last year. This left the Panthers without a genuine superstar. Without the threat of Jennings, the Panthers were always unlikely to have the strike power to give the top 4 a serious run. Panthers fans were left wondering who their side would turn to after losing their 3 biggest names. Although it may very well have worked out for the best, Panthers fans took to social media to express outrage when it was reported the Panthers were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to watch their former superstar tear it up for the Roosters and NSW.
If the Panthers want to make an impression come the business end of the season in 2014 they’ll need to start much better than they did in 2013. After beating the Raiders in front of 10,000+ at Centrebet Stadium, the Panthers lost their next 5 straight matches and became unbackable favourites to capture the wooden spoon in the process. 4 huge losses, including a 30-0 drubbing at the hands of the Cowboys, had fans cursing their luck as Jennings, Gordon and Lewis prospered at their new clubs. Just when the club looked like it may be back on its feet after a horrible start they dropped a winnable game in front of their home fans to the Tigers and were never able to recover in terms of their top 8 hopes.
Half way through the season, news broke that the Panthers were not offering their captain Kevin Kingston a new contract. At this stage the Panthers were sitting in the bottom half of the table, with their captain on the lookout for another club whilst fan attendance was way down from years gone by. The club struggled on and off the field whilst the new recruits failed to overly impress. Wes Naiqama spent time in reserve grade whilst star 5/8th Lachlan Coote was injured very early in the season robbing the Panthers of 2 expected attacking weapons. The club’s battles with the second tier salary cap were well documented as the club’s horrible injury toll took an unusual toll on the club.
What Went Right: Something seemed to click for the Panthers halfway through the season, as the club charged towards an unlikely finals spot. Luke Walsh’s form returned, as did that of former Origin prop Tim Grant, who seemed to thrive on the decision by selectors to overlook him for the series. Dean Whare started to show glimpses of the form he showed during his time at the Eagles whilst Lewis Brown and Mose Masoe seemed to come into their own as the season went on. It seemed to be the introduction of boom youngster Matt Moylan that triggered the turn around, as the talented fullback hit the ground running in the NRL debut. Moylan’s enthusiasm was infectious and sparked the squad as they fought tooth and nail for a spot in the top 8.
Although more was said about who the Panthers lost than who they gained, the Panthers may have gotten the last laugh after all as their recruitment drive proved successful. Sika Manu had solid season whilst Whare, Masoe and Brown proved their worth, but it was hooker James Segeyaro who proved to be the Penrith buy of the season. Segeyaro played all 24 games, 23 of them off the bench, contributing much more than his stats would suggest. The Cowboys will be kicking themselves they let this talented number 9 go, and may continue to curse the decision as Segeyaro showed no signs of slowing down as the season went on. Captain Kevin Kingston was re-signed to the club after showing his class by not letting the earlier announcement effect his form. The Panthers have one of the best dummy half combinations in the competition and one that will only get better.
Further proof that the Panthers 5 year plan is well and truly on course can be found in the success of the Panthers lower grades. The NSW cup side the Windsor Wolves made it to the NSW cup grand final before losing out, as the Panthers under 20’s won the competition after a huge victory over the Warriors in the grand final. The under 20’s outside backs looked big, fast and strong, vindicating the club’s decision to allow Michael Jennings to head to the Roosters.
Verdict: Most clubs would look at a 10th position finish as a failure however the Panthers can be very proud of their 2013. They discovered a superstar is Matt Moylan whilst James Segeyaro proved himself to be the bargain buy of the season. David Simmons had a career year, equal topping the try scoring charts with an incredible 19 tries in 24 games. His name was mentioned as a possible bolter in representative teams and his ability to score a try out of nowhere will be very handy next season. The Panthers have recruited very well for 2014, moving to fix their inconsistent halves pairing by signing premiership winning 5/8th Jamie Soward and bringing back former Panther and NSW halfback Peter Wallace. They’ve also added size and experience in the form of Elijah Taylor and Brent Kite as well as future superstars Kevin Naiqama and Tyrone Peachy. The future at the foot of the mountains is bright as the Panthers, and after 2013 they look well ahead of where most, including us, thought they would be.