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After the toughest of challenges – going back-to-back – ended in misery last year, the Penrith Panthers of 2016 are looking to reclaim the mantle as the NSW Cup’s best side. Following a premiership in 2014 and an exceptional start to 2015, their season unravelled on the back of an injury list that saw the side use a total of 48 players, exiting at the hands of eventual champions Newcastle (highlights above).

Now with their injured stars returning to the playing list and a new coach in Steve Georgallis at the helm (Garth Brennan is now the Panthers’ NRL assistant), there’s a renewed energy and focus at the foot of the mountains – and with it comes excitement, enthusiasm and expectation.

Off-season focus: For a club with so many new coaches at the helm – Georgallis, Brenann and incoming NRL boss Anthony Griffin all either in new roles or new to the club altogether – Georgallis admits most of the pre- and post-Christmas focus has been on getting to understand one another. “The off-season has really been about getting to know the players, their names and so on – who’s who in the zoo so to speak,” Georgallis said. “It’s about putting the systems in place and making sure we’re set to put our best foot forward for the season. It’s a really strong set-up with St Marys, Blacktown and Windsor flowing through, with those clubs sending their best players up from Ron Massey Cup.”

Biggest gain: While the Panthers have signed a number of new acquisitions who’ll slot directly into their NSW Cup side, new recruit Viliame Kikau, and his hulking 193cm, 114kg frame, will be one to watch. A former Cowboy, Kikau is only new to Rugby League after being discovered in Suva playing the 15-a-side code in 2013 – and he ended up representing the Fiji Bati last year. How well the 2015 Holden Cup Prop of the Year develops will say plenty about the coaching at the club.

Toughest loss: With the likes of Will Smith and Leilani Latu – regular performers in NSW Cup over a number of seasons – progressing to the NRL squad, the loss of Sam Anderson might be felt most by the Panthers. Anderson, who captained the side in last year’s finals, was selected on three consecutive occasions to play for NSW Residents, and led from the front since arriving at the club in 2013. Anderson signed to join Redcliffe – ironically enough to link with Anthony Griffin… who later signed with Penrith! “The major reason I have come up here is for Anthony Griffin,” Anderson told the Maitland Mercury in October. “He is fresh from the Broncos with NRL experience and an NRL coach in waiting… After meeting with him recently I was really impressed and I’ll be doing all I can to impress him on the field.”

Coach Georgallis says: “I’ve been an assistant for six years so it’s nice to have my own team again. I’m really looking forward to the season and putting my name out there again. The NSW Cup is a great opportunity to get runs on the board. The club is in great shape – the under-20s won last year and did really well the years before, so there’s plenty of depth amongst the squads. All over the team’s good in every position – there’s a lot of depth in every position, and we’re particularly strong in the forwards I think.”

Future star: A code-switcher and an 18-year-old draw most praise from Georgallis. "The Aussie rules convert Josh Hall looks very promising and could have a good future ahead of him if he works hard. He’s good in the air as you’d expect from a former Aussie rules player, and in attack he’s got a good step too. Nathan Cleary’s another good prospect. He’ll start in the under-20s this year but, like Lachlan Coote and Wade Graham who basically skipped a grade, if he’s good enough he’s old enough. Dependant on the form he shows and whether we suffer injuries, he’ll be a good chance at getting a run in our NSW Cup side this season."

Our prediction: With a new-look coaching line-up and some energetic new recruits, it’d be a brave person who writes off the Panthers in 2016. Expect them to be there or thereabouts for most of the season, and when the finals commence it’s a whole new ball game.


Comings and goings

Gains: Andrew Heffernan (Canberra Raiders), Josh Hall (United Suburbs Townsville), Sam Clune (Mackay Cutters), Sitaleki Akauola (Wests Tigers), Viliame Kikau (North Queensland Cowboys), Zach Docker-Clay (Parramatta Eels), Brent Naden, Corey Harawira-Naera, James Fisher-Harris, Maliko Filino, Moses Leota and Paea Pua (all Penrith under-20s)

Losses: Kieran Moss (Parramatta Eels), Adrian Davis (Wests Tigers), Sam Scarlett (Brisbane Broncos), Daniel Foster (Easts Tigers), Sam Anderson (Redcliffe Dolphins).