When a club releases their three highest profile players in one off-season, can you really expect them to be a force the following year? Rhetorical question I know. I bet Panthers fan hope so!
The Panthers have confessed to all and sundry that 2013 will be a rebuilding year in an effort to improve their salary cap situation and put themselves in a position to be active in the marquee player market in 2014 and beyond. Jonathan Thurston will be their primary target but I believe he is at long odds to join the Panthers as he is in a “win now”mode and his window to win another premiership is closing fast and Penrith are at least 3-4 years away from becoming legitimate premiership threats.
Ivan Cleary enters 2013 having lost Michael Jennings, Luke Lewis and Michael Gordon. He has made some astute signings that will keep the Panthers competitive, but none are game breakers or match winners. Cleary employs a disciplined style of footy that will be more at home with the Panthers than the Warriors.
Kevin Kingston has inherited the captaincy and should thrive with more responsibility. He does have some old heads around him such as Clint Newton who will provide valuable support for Kingston.
Coming to the Panthers in 2013 are Sika Manu (Storm), Lewis Brown (Warriors), Dean Whare (Manly), Shane Shackleton (Eels) and James Segeyaro (Cowboys). Decent players no doubt but not world beaters.
Who will be the x factor for the Panthers? Josh Mansour is the obvious choice. Lachlan Coote? Blake Austin perhaps? We all know Penrith are one of the stronger clubs when it comes to juniors and they will be relying heavily on their juniors to step up and fill the gaps (and there are a few) but I think it will be a while before these seeds bear any fruit.
I think a lot of the responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Tim Grant and Sam McKendry up front with Siak Manu providing so starch in the back row. Dayne Weston will be another player who needs to step up. A big unit but inconsistent. If Cleary can get the best out of him, his size and strength will be a real asset for the Panthers.
With all that said, the rebuilding year will be a rollercoaster ride for Panthers fans so strap yourselves in ladies and gents.
2013 prediction: 15th