Ricky’s NRL Previews Pt 11: Penrith Panthers

Good, young players, coupled with steeled, experience players. In principle, it is always a good mix. In practice, though, gelling is never easy. And for the Penrith Panthers, that mix will either make or break them in season 2016. They have a quality roster across the park and have recruited well over the last few seasons, but is that enough for them? Can they get the best out of their players, particularly out of an ageing halves duo in Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace? How long do you persist with them before bringing in younger, fresher blood? Is Moylan the answer at 5/8 if that is the case? And what about the forward log-jam Anthony Griffin is faced with, particularly in the back-row. How do you manage that and the players?

The major question many Panthers fans are wondering, and rival fans to some extent, is how long do you wait before Matt Moylan plays in the halves? Destined for a move there at some point in his career, the mantle is currently held by veterans Soward and Wallace. But as they are not getting any younger and with no guarantee that they are the answer in the halves that Penrith need, there are early calls to have Moylan starting in the 5/8 role as soon as possible. Should that happen, it would mean that you leave one of the veterans out. Which one that would be, depends on your own personal views of team dynamics.
But a move to 5/8 is not all smooth sailing and requires time, effort and hard work, as Moylan found out in a trial match for the club. He played 5/8 for some of it and was not at his best, highlighting that the transition will take longer than many may think. A very talented player in his own right, whilst the fullback and five-eighth role share similarities, they also have key, fundamental differences. At 5/8, you are in thick of the defensive line and expected to have a crucial impact for your team in attack especially.

The Panthers back-line is also an interesting proposition. Should any move to five-eighth for Moylan eventuate, it would become increasingly likely that Dallin Watene-Zelezniak would make the move to fullback from the wing. Another talented player, it is a position that DWZ is quite familiar with, having played a fair bit of fullback in the junior ranks. With Panthers fans also excited about prospects in Waqa Blake and the two younger Jennings brothers – Robert and George – there is a lot to like about the Panthers young, determined back-line depth. All three have had issues in the past in one way or another but hard work and development over the last 18 months and moving forward, will see them granted with further opportunities.
Importantly, a fully fit Josh Mansour is a crucial aspect for the Panthers. Injured for long periods last year and playing sporadically, he was not the same player last year compared to 2014, where he was a dominant NRL winger. Set to start on the wing, the fans will be hoping that he can replicate his 2014 form and form sound partnerships with his inside men.

But perhaps the most interesting discussion point regarding the Panthers for 2015, is the mass log-jam they have in the forwards, particularly the back-row. Decisions on who starts, who is on the bench and who gets how many minutes will be a hard task for new coach Anthony Griffin, with no fewer than 6-7 players vying for the spots and for minutes when selected.
It was abundantly clear last year under Ivan Cleary and in the NRL Auckland Nines this year, that Bryce Cartwright is a future star. Not your conventional back-rower who hits it up with speed on the edge, he brings flair and finesse to the position, utilising his ball skills to put team-mates in space and keep the ball alive with offloads. Many believe he should be one of the starting back-rowers and play the full game, something he is capable of, but recent decisions have cast some doubt over whether that would happen.

On paper, the Panthers boast a very handy side, particularly in the forward pack. Big, mobile and determined players, their success will hinge on the performances of their veteran halves. They are the key to the Panthers winning games and maintaining a solid position on the ladder. With a good roster, quality youngsters, a new, determined coach and some quality depth, they are a side that have all the potential to match it with the big teams in the NRL. The question is, can they?

Best Buy: Big, able boppers are hard to find for NRL teams and when you have one, you make the most of his skills as a hard, aggressive runner. The Panthers found their man to do just that in Trent Merrin. Joining from the St George Illawarra Dragons, Merrin offers some quality versatility in being able to cover all three positions across the forward pack, mainly lock or prop. A big bopper, his runs and carries will complement the similar efforts of fellow props Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Suaia Matagi and Jeremy Latimore, as the Panthers seek to out-muscle and overpower opposition teams with hard-running through the middle. Although his exact position at the club is currently unclear, he is a quality player. Though in the most recent trial, there were some question marks over his efforts, fitness and longevity, and just how long he would be able to remain in the game. That aside, he is a player that can boost the forward pack majorly and one that the Panthers will utilise to good effect.

Most Promising Talent: Not one of their own talents but now at the club seeking opportunity, there is one forward who has every chance of playing first-grade at some point in 2016. That is Viliame Kikau. A hulking prop, who is coming off some stellar seasons with the North Queensland Cowboys Holden Cup side, his impact and carries are a thing of beauty. Hard to tackle and deceptively strong, he has been the staple for that Cowboys side in the forwards, making the hard yards and getting over the advantage line on numerous occasions. A true metre-eater yet a classy, smart player, Kikau is destined for big things. Whilst getting into the Panthers side may not be an easy task with the mountain of forwards they have, opportunity will come eventually and with a player of his calibre, he will be ready to make that impact and perform well, when he is selected and given a chance to prove his worth.

Our predicted line-up:

1. Matt Moylan (C)
2. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak
3. Dean Whare
4. Peta Hiku
5. Josh Mansour
6. Jamie Soward
7. Peter Wallace
8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard
9. James Segeyaro
10. Suaia Matagi
11. Isaah Yeo
12. Bryce Cartwright
13. Elijah Taylor

14. Jeremy Latimore
15. Tyrone Peachey
16. Trent Merrin
17. Leilani Latu

2016 Gains: Sitaleki Akauola (Wests Tigers, 2016), Oliver Clark (2018), Zach Dockar-Clay (Parramatta Eels, 2017), Dylan Edwards (2018), Ben Garcia (Catalan Dragons, 2017), Josh Hall (2017), Andrew Heffernan (Canberra Raiders, 2017), Peta Hiku (Manly Sea Eagles, 2018), Viliame Kikau (North Queensland Cowboys, 2017), Soni Luke (2018), Te Maire Martin (Wests Tigers, 2018), Suaia Matagi (Mid Season: New Zealand Warriors, 2017), Tyrone May (2018), Trent Merrin (St George Illawarra Dragons, 2018)

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