It was another highly successful season for the Penrith Panthers in 2018 and although they were unable to claim back-to-back premierships, they still remain in perfect position to be one of the heavyweights of the Intrust Super Premiership NSW next year.
Although consistent to open their campaign, the Panthers were unable to win more than two games in a row in their first 10 fixtures, but their three sets of back-to-back victories up until Round 12 put them in an ideal position to cement a top-four spot.
And they would do so in emphatic style as they remained undefeated for the entire season with a dynamic 11-game winning streak, all but cementing the Minor Premiership weeks before the final Round of the regular season.
The depth of their squad was arguably their strength in 2018, with the likes of Jerome Luai and Tyrone May enjoying some First-Grade experience before their season-ending injuries, with Liam Coleman and Adam Keighran filling in more than capably in the halves at the back end of the year.
The emergence of fullback Caleb Aekins also proved significant as he won the ISP Player of the Year Award after a breakout year, while the likes of Wayde Egan and Kaide Ellis were also dominant throughout the season.
While 28-24 loss to the Newtown Jets in the Preliminary Final cruelled their chance of their second consecutive Grand Final appearance, they will have plenty to look forward to in 2019 under the reign of head-coach Guy Missio.
The Key Number
They say defence wins premierships and although it wasn't to be for the Penrith Panthers in 2018 their consistent defensive efforts week to week played a huge role in their dominance throughout the regular season.
Their goal-line defence, in particular, proved the difference countless times and ultimately was a large part of their Minor Premiership triumph – most notably, in their unbeaten run.
The Rising Star
Caleb Aekins was quite simply, the best player in the Intrust Super Premiership in 2018.
Rewarded with Player of the Year honours at season's end, the dynamic fullback was unstoppable in his first year in the ISP – ranked first in the competition for total run metres (4305m), and second for tackle-breaks (111) and post-contact metres (1280m).
His form was rewarded with selection in the No.1 jersey for the NSW Residents side before making his First-Grade debut for the Penrith Panthers in Round 18 – a game which saw him record 27 runs and a whopping 303m.
With limitless potential, Aekins will be the key to the Panthers hopes of another successful season in 2019, but will looking to make a name for himself with more games in the top grade next year and beyond.
Room For Improvement
It's hard to pinpoint a key area for improvement for the Panthers after they enjoyed such a stellar regular season but greater discipline will be key in 2019 after they were ranked second for penalties conceded (218).
They often gifted their opposition valuable field position, but such was their defiant efforts in defence they were able to hold out the attacking raids.
If they were to improve with their discipline in 2019, it will make things much tougher for their opposition as they look to build on their success next year.
How it will be remembered
The task of winning a premiership is an enormous challenge for any side, let alone trying to win back-to-back premierships. The Panthers may look back on the season and be proud of their efforts, but, not entirely satisfied.
The heart-breaking loss to the Jets in the Preliminary Final will be sure to make them hungrier next year – a worrying sign for any side who takes the field against the Minor Premiers, who will undoubtedly be successful again in 2019.