It’s probably fair to say that the Penrith Panthers exceeded expectations in 2016 and Anthony Griffin performed near miracles with a young and experienced team. Having spent a year out of the game following his departure from the Brisbane Broncos, the Panthers took something of a punt on hiring the 50-year old following the sacking of Ivan Cleary. Despite being forced to mix and match his teams during a turbulent campaign, Griffin worked wonders to lead the Panthers into the finals in his first season in charge, overcoming the numerous obstacles that lay in their way. The question now is whether Penrith can go even better in 2017 or whether they will struggle to live up to the expectations their performances last year have now set.
It was a season of change throughout the club for the Panthers last year, from the coaching staff to the spine of the team. Releasing experienced and influential players like Jamie Soward, Elijah Taylor and James Segeyaro halfway through the campaign could very well of taken the wind out of their sails, but this exciting and young group really stepped up and made a name for themselves. It was definitely touch and go for large parts of the season for Penrith, failing to find any sort of consistency until the final third of the season on their way finishing sixth in the NRL table thanks to a remarkable late run of form.
In what will go down as one of the best performances from a Panthers team in recent history, Griffin’s men made it to the semi-finals after a sensational victory over the Bulldogs in week one of the finals. While the Canberra Raiders ended their finals dream in their next game, the season couldn’t help but be labelled a success. Having let Soward, Taylor and Segeyaro the likes of Bryce Cartwright, Matt Moylan, Nathan Cleary, Tyrone Peachey and Trent Merrin all enjoyed stand-out seasons and highlighted just why many are tipping the Panthers to be a force in 2017, with odds of 7/1 with bet365 to win the Grand Final.
A handful of fringe players were allowed to leave the club during the offseason, including Suaia Matagi, Jeremy Latimore and Chris Grevsmuhl, the Panthers have added James Tamou and Tim Browne to their forward options, with Mitch Rein providing an exciting dummy-half option following his move from the Dragons. Griffin will be without Josh Mansour and Peter Wallace for large parts of the season due to injury, robbing Penrith of two of their best players from last season. With the experience of having to compete without important players from last season under their belt, though, this team are better prepared to fill in and certainly more than capable of going all the way in the new year.
There might be more experienced and star-studded teams in the competition, but the unity and fearlessness of this squad is something that can’t be ignored as we head into a fascinating 2017 NRL campaign.