SEASON REVIEW | Penrith Panthers
Ladder position: 8th
Competition points: 26
Points scored (including finals): 594
Points conceded (including finals): 485
Despite showing great promise in patches throughout the season, Penrith are left to regret a year marred with inconsistency and several narrow losses. After coming back to defeat the NZ Warriors for a lucky finals berth in Round 25, the Panthers couldn’t repeat the effort against the same opposition a week later and were eliminated immediately. That eight-day period in itself paints a picture of what went on at the foot of the mountains all year.
With an abundance of junior talent that is the envy of coaches nationwide, the club itself is in strong shape and took out the NRL Club Championship in 2016. The Intrust Super Premiership NSW is excluded from this award, but making the finals in all three senior grades is a significant achievement for any club. A host of young and old talent graced the side, but with an unstable roster it was hard for coach Steve Georgallis to build a consistently performing side throughout the season.
Having signed Te Maire Martin from the Wests Tigers, one of the most talked-about recruits showed his class in the opening round. A relatively young side took it to the might of Mounties in the 24-22 loss, with Martin scoring a double and proving his worth. The Junior Kiwis five-eighth backed it up a week later and earned himself an NRL debut in just Round 3, which was always going to hurt the Intrust Super Premiership NSW side, but with a devastating shoulder injury he would not return to the lower grade until Round 21.
While young gun Nathan Cleary has been a superstar rookie in the NRL, the Intrust Super Premiership NSW side did not benefit from his services; Cleary only played in the Panthers’ Round 11 win before debuting in first grade, with the relatively unique path of transitioning from the Holden Cup directly into the NRL. Another key player early in the year was Kiwi International Elijah Taylor, but without a first grade spot he was offloaded to the Tigers after playing for the Intrust Super Premiership NSW Residents in May.
The final significant change to the Panthers’ playing roster was the relegation of Jamie Soward and James Segeyaro. While Segeyaro only played in the side’s Round 14 win over Manly before heading to England, Soward also played in Round 15 and 16 – a period in which Penrith conceded just three tries and won all games convincingly. This was a clear boost to the Panthers, but when the star players left they were unable to build momentum in the competition. Ultimately, they will be disappointed in their early finals exit but will know what they can achieve with a more consistent roster next year.
In a game where both the Panthers and Jets were in a similar position – both had held their opposition to six points in the previous two weeks and were in ominous form – it was Penrith who blew Newtown off the park in a convincing 60-6 victory. It was the Jamie Soward show at St Marys Leagues Stadium as the NRL star proved he was a class above, setting up an incredible five tries, six line-breaks and kicking 10 goals from 10 attempts. Zach Dockar-Clay and prop Andy Saunders also put forward good performances in one of the most convincing wins of the competition this year.
The Panthers, of course, knew Soward’s cameo appearance wasn’t going to last for ever and while they were on a five-game winning streak when he left days later, they would go down to the lowly-placed Magpies a week later and would only win twice in their final nine appearances.
The Panthers went through the season with just two big losses: a 46-18 loss to the Cutters in Round 4 and a 26-16 loss to the Roos in Round 7. Penrith were able to test their opposition in almost every game, but the Round 7 defeat in particular must be considered a lowlight. In damp conditions at Morry Breen Oval, Wyong started and ended with a flurry of points and dominated possession for much of the games. Despite an even penalty count of nine apiece, the Panthers made 604 fewer metres than the Roos and missed a significant 35 tackles to Wyong’s 16. A try to Corey Harawira-Naera was all that saved the visitors from a clean sheet in Kanwal.
As mentioned, a number of significant player movements affected the team this season, but when Jamie Soward headed to the London Broncos after his dominant Round 16 performance it signalled the beginning of the end for Georgallis’s men. A 16-point loss to Wentworthville followed and they would lose by six points or less five more times in the rest of the regular season, only making the finals by the skin of their teeth. The return of Te Maire Martin in Round 21 helped the side’s attack, but he failed to recapture the form that saw him light up the NRL months earlier.
Martin was a key part of everything the side did in his eight games and will hope to return to form next year following his shoulder injury. After making the switch from the AFL this season, Josh Hall took to the code brilliantly and finished as the highest point-scorer in 2016, while skipper Zach Dockar-Clay was versatile in the halves and at hooker throughout the year. Andy Saunders and back Malakai Watene-Zelezniak were both consistent, while prop Viliame Kikau successfully stepped up from the Holden Cup after coming from the North Queensland Cowboys.
Destined for the NRL:
Many of the above mentioned players have near-certain futures in the NRL. Despite Bryce Cartwright’s proficiency in the halves this season, many still tip Martin to partner Cleary in the top grade next year and if the players are anywhere near their best, this combination could be deadly. Watene-Zelezniak had flashes of brilliance and will aim to climb the ladder in the outstanding outside backs stocks at Penrith – but he will have to compete with Hall, whose ability in the air could prove to be the best in the NRL. Kikau, who was named the NYC Player Of The Year by the Rugby League Players’ Association last year, was not signed to be an Intrust Super Premiership NSW player – it is simply a matter of when.
Changes in the playing roster will always be a factor in lower-grade Rugby League, but with a bit of luck this will improve in 2017. With many of the young wave of talent eyeing NRL berths next year, it will be up to Georgallis to develop new faces for a side that can improve on consistency. With a number of significant recruits joining at NRL level, increased competition for spots can only be a good thing for the team in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW.
Witness history this September at the 2016 NSWRL Grand Final Day. On Sunday, 25 September the Intrust Super Premiership NSW decider, along with the Ron Massey Cup and Sydney Shield Grand Finals, take place at Pirtek Stadium, with tickets just $10 for adults and kids under 12 free. Click here to secure your seat.