SEASON PREVIEW: Penrith Panthers
“Our moment is now” – that’s the mantra for the Penrith Panthers heading into the 2017 NRL and Intrust Super Premiership NSW seasons. With a common focus and a little luck with injuries, perhaps, it just might be.
The Panthers head into this season off the back of a first-week finals exit in 2016, where they lost to the Warriors in Auckland a week after defeating them at the same venue. As a hot tip for the NRL premiership, however, and with with impressive performances in the past two Holden Cup seasons, there is little doubt that the club is on the up in 2017. Any NRL success they might have, of course, is likely to have a flow-on effect.
Many Intrust Super Premiership NSW clubs are getting used to new, young sides at this time of year and the Panthers are no different – of the 13 men named in their squad for this season, all but outside back Malakai Watene-Zelezniak are under 22 years of age. For the men from the foot of the mountains, however, age might not be such an issue; as the 2015 premiers and 2016 runners-up, the club can be considered to have the strongest young crop of them all.
Add to that the return of coach Garth Brennan – who led the Panthers’ Holden Cup side to a premiership in 2013, before doing the same in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW a year later – and it looks to be a very promising year at the foot of the mountains. For Brennan, however, holding that trophy in September is not the final aim.
“Yes, it would be nice to win the competition, there’s no doubt about that,” Brennan tells NSWRL.com.au, “but at the end of the day, it’s about developing these young kids into NRL players. That’s our primary focus.”
After coaching roles in all three senior grades – including last season as NRL assistant coach – Brennan is certainly up to the task. He’s just as excited as the players to get into the season proper.
“All the hard work’s been done in the pre-season, the boys have worked really hard, they’re in good shape,” Brennan says. “Now it’s business time – we start to play for points.”
With mountains of potential, the Panthers will mean business in 2017.
2016 IN 16 WORDS OR LESS
A fall from the top four cost them and they failed to win when it mattered.
THEIR BIG FIVE
Jed Cartwright, cousin of Panthers superstar Bryce, arrives back at the club after coming through the Titans’ Holden Cup system. There is plenty of expectation on this second-rower and according to Brennan, for good reason.
Zach Dockar-Clay captained the side last year and despite being just 21, is an experienced hooker/halfback who will provide momentum for the Panthers at every opportunity.
While he doesn’t talk much, Malakai Watene-Zelezniak leads by example on the field. A talented finisher and the oldest in the team, he will have significant responsibilities this year.
Described by Brennan as an “old head on young shoulders,” Oliver Clark is one rookie to watch in the competition this year. Like many young front-rowers, expect him to get even better with age.
Lachlan Stein is an outside back who is powerful and can find the line when given space. If this team gels, Stein is sure to put the finish on a number of attacking raids in 2017.
Brennan, who replaces Bulldogs-bound Steve Georgallis in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW coaching role, has been as much a one-club man as any in the competition and knows the Panthers’ club and systems well. The 45-year-old details his experience in coming to the position he’s in now.
“I’m a Newcastle boy – I’m born and bred in Newcastle,” Brennan begins. “This is my sixth year at Penrith. I came down originally to coach the NYC team which I did up until 2013. Fortunately, we had some success in ’13, won the competition and then in ‘’14 I moved into coach Intrust Super Premiership NSW.
“I was fortunate enough that year as well, to win.”
With a return to his current role, Brennan is more comfortable as a coach.
“This year I moved back to coach the Intrust Super Premiership NSW side again. I miss having my own team and coaching my own team,” Brennan says. “I also miss working with the young guys.”
Popular with his players, Brennan has previously been touted for an NRL head coaching role – but first will be aiming to taste success in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW.
The Panthers have not experienced the biggest player movement this off season, but the changes they have seen have been significant. Among the losses are 2016 top point scorer Josh Hall, Intrust Super Premiership NSW mainstay Andy Saunders, Stanton and Wellington Albert, Brendan Attwood and George Jennings. Most of the new playing group has come from the Holden Cup, but the club also welcomes Samisoni Langi, Michael Oldfield, Lachlan Stein and Jed Cartwright.
While the particularly young side might put some fans off at first, the players at Brennan’s disposal are quality. All the pieces appear to be in place for a successful year, with player development the main goal for all involved. While a premiership might be optimistic for this young crop, expect Penrith to be well above the sixth-place finish they experienced in 2016.