Well, the Panthers 2005 season is over and now its time to stand back and have a look at what happened to the club.
After a brilliant, magical 2003 season and an exceptional 2004 season, Panthers fans held high hopes that going into 2005 the club would once again be one of the best teams in the game. For a group of fans starved or longer term success, Panthers supporters couldn’t wait to see our club striving for the Grand Final for the third year in a row.
Most Rugby League fans expected the Panthers to at least be a top four side. Most experts had theme even higher, finishing in the top two. After their incredible success during the Pre-Season, the Panthers looks like they would be hard to beat in 2005.
Then the regular season kicked off and the true horror started to reveal itself…
After talking about bulking up an already massive side during the off season, the Panthers looked noticeably heavier and slower then their early season opponents. Injuries to Tony Puletua and Joe Galavoa hurt the cause but it was clear to most observers that something was wrong with the 2005 Panthers.
As the season progressed, terrible defensive problems out wide started to show up week after week. Preston Campbell’s defensive problems saw one entire side of the defensive line collapsing every time the opposition targeted the former Dally M medal winner.
In attack, our once feared forward pack has lost its intimidating, no holds barred running style. Gone were the days of Clinton, Ross, Waterhouse and Puletua imposing their physical will on the opposition forward pack. The 2005 Panthers pack looked a lot tamer, more subdued and much easier to handle.
In the halves, Craig Gower’s form left a lot to be desired. After signing a massive contract to remain at Penrith, the play makers attack consisted of passes that did little more then put team mates under pressure. His running game was slow, predictable and consisted of simple hit ups. Some suggested Gower was injured, but even so, his leadership of the team on the field and his organization of the side was well below par.
For the first time as a Penrith Panther, Preston Campbell’s form had its ups and downs. His defense got to a point where John Lang was forced to play him on the wing in defense. In attack, Campbell remained our number one passing and kicking threat and as usual he did a lot of what Craig Gower should have been doing. His contract negotiations may have taken their toll, and while Panthers fans have no ill feeling towards a player universally loved the League over, we did cringe when we learned the club had offered Campbell a one year contract extension to remain at the club rather then biting the bullet and bloodying a young five-eighth from the lower grades….something the club will have to do anyway.
Out wide, the Panthers were a basket case. It was obvious from very early on that we only had one player at the club who was even close to being a first grade quality center….and that was winger Luke Lewis!
After being signed during the off season on a small contract, Paul Franze played some VERY poor football in his first few months at the club. His defense was slow and dreadful. His attack was slow and about as dangerous as plastic safety scissors. He would rarely, if ever, like up with his international winger outside of him and it became pretty clear that once he got the ball in his hands, he would be holding onto it until he got tackled or scored a try.
The lack of centers saw Luke Lewis pushed once man in. Lewis, a very good winger, found himself having to do a lot more work in defense and over playing due to defensive lapses by people either side of him. By mid season Lewis found himself back to the wing as the club played reserve grade quality second rowers out wide as a stop gap measure.
These problems out wide culminated in the hardest seasons Lewis or Rooney had faced as wingers. Getting little ball, having a lot of traffic heading their way in defense and playing in a side going no where, Lewis and Rooney did their best, but it eventually took its toll. Lewis went from a fringe State Of Origin player to a player just looking to find his form again, and Rooney went from a star performer out wide for Australia and New South Wales….to being dropped and having to regain his place from Timana Tahu!
As the Panthers season peters out, questions have to be asked about what went wrong and what can be changed as the club looks towards 2006.
Its obvious that player fitness is a major problem with the majority of the side. Throw in a tape of the 2003 Grand Final…it takes you about 10 seconds to realize that the likes of Clinton, Waterhouse, Ross, Puletua and even Luke Priddis are far from the lean, sharp athletes they once were. Their extra bulk has not translated into extra strength, its turned them into an immobile side that easy to turn around, thats easy to out last over 80 minutes and that is so cumbersome in attack that they no longer run onto the ball at any pace.
The junior development system much also be looked at as the clubs lower grade teams also fail to make the grade. While other teams scout players from Country NSW and all of Queensland and New Zealand, the Panthers seem content to rely solely on players born and raised in the Penrith area. This method worked when Penrith had a once in a lifetime influx of ready made internationals in the Early 00’s…..but in todays NRL where a Bulldogs junior was born and raised in Wellington….that policy is destined to fail over the long term.
The clubs top grade player recruitment needs and over hall. After losing Scott Sattler, Ryan Girdler, Paul Whatuira and Martin Lang in the last three season, the club has replaced these players with Paul Franze and Amos Roberts, the latter of which was only at the club for 12 months. Penrith have never had a history of buying many top class players from other clubs, but at a time when the club has a number of major needs, stop gap measures like Mark O’Hallaran is not enough.
Coaching and general team management much been looked at. John Lang is a very good coach, but many of the problems that has long been identified with the Panthers have not been addresses until it was to late. The fitness and conditioning on the team has not been up to standard for some time. There is no excuse for that, not in todays day and age where fitness and conditioning is the very first thing you get in order when piecing together a top class NRL side.
Some within the club bristle at the first suggestion that anyone within the management should be scrutinized to closely, pointing towards the clubs recent success and saying things such as “You were pretty happy with the job we did in 2003”. But the fact is when you got from being the best club in the game in 2003, to within a game of the Grand Final in 2004, to fighting to avoid the wooden spoon in 2005…you can not expect to get a free pass. No one in the game is above a fall from grace that big.
The 2005 Penrith Panthers have been one of the biggest disappointments in the games recent history. A young club with so much potential. A club that defined itself by its unstoppable will to win, its heart, its never say die attitude and its ability to stare the pressure situations in the face and handle them better then more experience teams have ever been able to.
One can only hope that between now and next season, the club can pull its act together and save this incredibly gifted group of young athletes and the legacy they could potentially have left behind once their careers are over. A team that came together over the course of 18 months, they went from wooden spooners to NRL champions in the blink of an eye and showed everyone around the League that it doesn’t matter what the experts say as long as you believe in yourself, and you have the will to win.
As a life long Panthers fan, the 2005 has left me clutching onto only one thing……hope for the future.