Michael Treacy – Penrith Panthers 2013 Season Preview

The 2012 season was a season to forget for Penrith Panther fans. A 15th place finish with a plethora of injuries on top of a mass exodus which included club legends Michael Gordon, Luke Lewis and Michael Jennings had many Panther fans asking the question “What is happening to my club?” It is a fair question to ask given the upheaval that has occurred since Phil Gould took the reins in 2011.

The 2012 finish and drain of talent, along with the fact that whenever anyone at the Panthers speaks there is mention of project 2015, Panther fans are rightfully concerned about the team’s prospects heading into 2013.

What is not noticed, however, is the massive change that has occurred at every level within the club. A high performance manager has been appointed for the first time in the club’s history along with a renewed focus on junior depth and development and recruitment.

All grades, bar the NRL side, improved significantly in 2012 and if early form is anything to go by, that improvement is set to continue. On top of this improvement, Panther fans have seen the establishment of the halfback academy which is set to be a training ground for the talent of tomorrow along with the announcement of a centre of excellence which will take the Panthers out of the Stone Age and institute appropriate development structures. This improvement in the structure of the lower grades will bear fruit in time and it will provide a sustainable pipeline of talent to the first grade squad.

There was significant turnover in the playing roster for 2013 with 16 players joining the club with anticipation of making it 17, if Isaac John, as rumoured, joins the club this week. It is no secret that Ivan Cleary faces a tough challenge to integrate these players into his system for the 2013 along with the development of the clubs promising junior talent.

While the Panthers lost club legends they have attracted a number of promising players to the club at each level of development. Established players such as Lewis Brown and Sika Manu headline the recruitment drive while young, talented players looking for opportunity in James Segeyaro, Dean Whare, Kyle O’Donnell and James Roberts provide an X-factor. On top of that there are veteran players with something to prove like Wes Naiqama who provide both experience and leadership.

Many have written off the Panthers for 2013, but don’t be surprised if Cleary finds the right mix of youth and experience and has the Panthers playing more competitive than anticipated. A top 8 appearance may be too much to ask, but the wooden spoon is something that will not be heading to the foot of the mountains.

Why They’ll Win It

* Depth in the Pack

The Panthers overall depth of the squad is much better in 2013 than in 2012 or at any point since 2003. The concept of competition brings out the best in people will need to apply for the Panthers to succeed this year as the depth in the forward pack especially is remarkable. Outside of the top 17 there are 18 players with First Grade experience competing for positions. That sort of depth can only help when inevitable injuries occur.

* Fresh start & new culture

It is no surprise that the bulk of the recruitment for the Panthers has occurred from clubs with winning teams and disciplinarian coaches. Players like Sika Manu, Dean Whare, James Segeyaro and Wes Naiqama come to Penrith from well established coaches with a history of winning and are critical in developing that culture at Penrith.

* Dominant forward pack

The Panthers forward pack has long been the strength of this team. While the Panthers don’t have a Luke Lewis or Frank Pritchard, this season the Panthers will be hoping new recruits Lewis Brown and Sika Manu will provide the edge impact that was so lacking in 2012 to create opportunities for outside backs. Along with that edge impact the Panthers will be relying heavily on the leadership of State of Origin prop Tim Grant along with Kiwi International Sam McKendry to lay a solid platform.

* Development of young talent

Ivan Cleary has long been recognised as one of the better coaches at developing and timing young talent in order for them to achieve sustainable success in First Grade. Cleary’s skills will need to be at their peak this year with a squad in desperate need of a young X-Factor to create points. The development of young guns Tom Eisenhuth, Matt Moylan, George Jennings, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Vaipuna Tia-Kilifi will be the key to the future of the Panthers.

Why They Won’t

* Developing Spine

If you ask anyone in football what is the main ingredient to a great team and they will immediately say the halfback and the spine. The fullback, halves and hooker of any team dictate how far that team will progress. A look at the best teams of the last decade will highlight that without a great halfback especially, teams will ultimately struggle. The Panthers, with Luke Walsh, obviously feel he is not the man for the job otherwise they would not be pushing so hard for Jonothan Thurston’s signature.

While the halves pairing of Coote and Walsh looked good at the end of last year it will need to show more in 2013 for the Panthers to be serious contenders. Wes Naiqama at fullback is ultimately holding that position for emerging talents Keiran Moss or Dallin Watene-Zelezniak for the future. At hooker the Panthers seem strong with the leadership of Kevin Kingston and X-Factor of James Segeyaro.

* Depth at key positions

While the Panthers have substantial depth in the backs and the forwards this season, the depth in the halves is of critical concern. With the late departure of Arana Tuamata and the early release of promising half Harry Seijka to the Warriors has left the stocks of halves bare. The Panthers have recruited Tom Humble and are on the verge of signing Issac John but if Coote or Walsh were to get injured, one has to doubt whether there will be adequate depth to lead the squad.

* High turnover

With 16 new players coming into a team there is ultimately substantial turnover in the squad. With that sort of upheaval comes trouble in developing trust and chemistry on the field. The Panthers will likely start slow, but improve as the season develops and the players understand each other’s tendencies and movements in the defensive line.

* Lack of gamebreakers

With the departure of three of your best players and the three players you went to when something special was needed is obviously going to hurt. Looking at the roster it is hard to see where points will come from for the Panthers and they will be relying on young players and their new recruits to provide that spark when that something special is needed. Ultimately, it is hard to see where that big play is coming from in 2013. Someone special will have to emerge to take that role for the Panthers very soon.

Player To Watch

Dean Whare

The expectations for Dean Whare are high at the Panthers. Whare comes from a winning culture at Manly and comes with a pedigree of being selected to represent New Zealand at the end of 2012. At Manly, Whare was ultimately used as a utility back to fill in for injuries throughout the season. Whare likely entered the Panthers radar after being a late addition to the team for Brett Stewart, who had pulled out with injury, and helping the Sea Eagles romp the Panthers 30-0 with a sensational performance in round six 2012.

Initially from St.George, he was recruited to Manly and big things were expected. While injuries have hurt Whare early in his career he really established himself as a legitimate first grader in 2012 in the opportunities he was afforded.

Whare performed admirably at Fullback and on the wing but ultimately he was most at home in the position where he has played the majority of his career – centre. With Michael Jennings leaving there is hope among Panther’s faithful that Whare can fill the void. While he has been used at Fullback in the trials thus far, the Panthers would be wise to utilise Whare’s skills in the centre position. Whare proved in 2012 to be a promising star in the NRL at the centre position with a great combination of size, speed, explosion and the ability to set up his outside man for points.

Expect to see big things from Dean Whare in the Panthers jersey in his first real opportunity in his promising career for a consistent first grade spot.

Rookie To Watch

Vaipuna Tia-Kilifi

Vaipuna Tia-Kilifi is regarded by Penrith Panther fans as the next great second rower to come out of the club. Not only does the former NYC Panthers captain possess a tremendous skillset he also possesses a fantastic work ethic and demonstrates leadership on and off the football field.

Vaipuna’s play in 2012 was impressive, being named in the 2012 NYC Team of the Year and being named the Panthers MVP for the 2012 season. In 2013, the expectations for Tia-Kilifi’s impending debut could not be higher among Panther fans. Those expectations should be fairly ease for Tia-Kilifi to handle since the 192cm, 100kg hulk of a second rower has been carrying such expectations since he was terrorising SG Ball teams four years ago.

Tia-Kilifi is a special talent and Panther fans will be hoping that he has a long and healthy career ahead of him and realises the tremendous potential he has. That journey will begin in 2013.


GAINS: Lewis Brown (Warriors), Sika Manu (Storm), Dean Whare (Sea Eagles), Wes Naiqama (Knights), Jeremy Latimore (Dragons), James Segeyaro (Cowboys), Sam Anderson (Knights), Ethan Cook (Knights), Kyle O’Donnell (Knights), Moses Pangai (Cowboys), James Roberts (South Sydney), Etu Nabuli (Fiji), Issac John (ESL), Anthony Cherrington (Roosters), Mosese Pangai (Cowboys), Neecrom Aeriati (South Sydney), Mose Masoe (Roosters), Tom Humble (Tigers)

LOSSES: Michael Jennings (Roosters), Luke Lewis (Cronulla), Michael Gordon (Cronulla), Sandor Earl (Raiders), Mitch Achurch (Leeds), Travis Burns (Hull), Nafe Seluini (Roosters), Masada Iosefa (Wests Tigers).

Best Line-up
1. Wes Naiqama
2. Josh Mansour
3. Dean Whare
4. Brad Tighe
5. James Roberts
6. Lachlan Coote
7. Luke Walsh
8. Tim Grant
9. Kevin Kingston c
10. Sam McKendry
11. Lewis Brown
12. Sika Manu
13. Nathan Smith

14. James Segeyaro
15. Dayne Weston
16. Matt Robinson
17. Blake Austin

Windsor Wolves:
1. Travis Robinson
2. Eto Nabuli
3. Geoff Daniela
4. Tom Eisenhuth
5. David Simmons
6. Matt Moylan
7. Tom Humble
8. Kyle O’Donnell
9. Ryan Simpkins
10. Mose Masoe
11. Anthony Cherrington
12. Clint Newton
13. Adam Docker

14. Blake South
15. Jeremy Latimore
16. Vaipuna Tia-Kilifi
17. Nigel Plum

18. Mosese Pangai
19. Cameron Ciraldo
20. Danny Galea
21. Kane Morgan
22. Sam Anderson
23. Neecrom Aeriati
24. Jake Grace
25. Sam Hollis
26. Andrew Pelasio
27. Ethan Cook

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