The Panthers finished in 7th place at the conclusion of the regular season; no mean feat after a disastrous 2-7 start for the ‘joint premiership favourites’ (lol). However, the promise was clear, given they performed strongly to finish 2016 in 6th on the ladder; retaining the large majority of their squad for the 2017, plenty expected improvement from that 6th position finish. This obviously didn’t play out, and one big reason for that was the drop-off in form from Trent Merrin and Bryce Cartwright, both of whom were instrumental in 2016’s successful season. They were 6th in attack in 2018, a smallish drop from equal 4th in 2016, and ranked 8th in defence in both years.
Well, let’s just say the lead-up to 2018’s season was “eventful”. The loss of “favourite sons” Matt Moylan and Bryce Cartwright aside, take a gander below at the list of lost talent compared to the names that have come in. I mean, aside from James Maloney, the only somewhat recogniseable name is Tyrone Phillips, who is injured anyway! Compare that to the losses last year and in the offseason, and you’re looking at a far different Panthers outfit – one that was significantly less depth in key positions. Taking a glance at the top squad, there is a distinct lack of NRL experience in the halves outside of Maloney and Cleary, with Tyrone May still recovery and the other options being rookies or makeshift halves like Peachey.
Having said that, they now have an experienced, proven winner in Maloney, plus soon-to-be million-dollar-a-season, future Origin halfback Nathan Cleary, steering the team around. The impact of such an experienced half cannot be understated and Maloney clearly has a knack for taking new clubs to the big dance (Warriors, Roosters, Sharks). He has to contend with a coach that plenty don’t rate, and media speculation already about the coach’s place at the club, but there are plenty of positives amongst the negatives too.
The Panthers were joint premiership favourites last year, but I’m somewhat surprised that they are tied with the Eels and behind only the Roosters, Storm, Cowboys and Broncos in the odds for a top 4 finish this year – ahead of the Sharks, Dragons and Sea Eagles. With that squad, they should be making (up the numbers in the) finals yet again, but top four I feel may be a bridge too far.
Predicted finish: 7th
BYE: Round 13
BEST 17: 1. Dylan Edwards 2. Josh Mansour 3. Waqa Blake 4. Dean Whare 5. Dallin Watane-Zelezniak 6. James Maloney 7. Nathan Cleary 8. James Tamou 9. Peter Wallace 10. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 11. Isaah Yeo 12. Corey Harawira-Naera 13. Trent Merrin 14. Tyrone Peachey 15. James Fisher-Harris 16. Viliame Kikau 17. Moses Leota
Who’s left: Tim Browne, Jed Cartwright, Oliver Clark, Wayde Egan, Kaide Ellis, Jack Hetherington, Sione Katoa, Adam Keighran, Jarome Luai, Nick Lui-Toso, Soni Luke, Tyrone May, Sam McKendry, Chad O’Donnell, Joey Peato, Tyrone Phillips, Corey Waddell, Jayden Walker
For Round 1, DWZ is expected to be back after an off-season injury scare, and Waqa Blake continues to be eased back from his off-season shoulder reconstruction (as does CHN). It appears likely that Tyrone Peachey will line up at left centre in round 1 while Blake recovers, but otherwise his position in the team seems clouded with the fact that he has already signed with the Titans from 2019 onwards. That Hook has stated multiple times that Peachey is needed for the Panthers in 2018 leads me to believe that he will not only be there in the backline in Round 1, but even if he is moved away once Blake is 100% fit again, he could very well fill the utility role (given his ability to play centre, 5/8, second row, lock and hooker) for the year or at least until the other talented Tyrone (May, not Phillips – can you imagine the confusion at Panthers training when you yell out “Tyrone”?!) recovers from his ACL injury (April at the soonest). In any case, look also for the likes of Wayde Egan to get a shot later in the year, as he has been lighting up under 20s plus he also showed some impressive touches in preseason this year – makes perfect sense with Peter Wallace nearing the end of his career (surely… right?). Either way, the Panthers still appear to have an unbalanced depth issue – questionable depth in key spine positions (concerns if Cleary, Maloney and Edwards go down long-term, although May’s return from injury would help) but also questionable depth in the outside backs after releasing a number of players who filled that role for them last year (Moylan, Hiku, Oldfield, MWZ). As always though, their pack is stacked and that is one area where there is little concern.
|Ins: Adam Keighran (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, 2018), James Maloney (Cronulla Sharks, 2020), Chad O’Donnell (2018), Joey Peato (2018), Tyrone Phillips (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, 2018), Jayden Walker (Cronulla Sharks, 2018)|
|Outs: Sitaleki Akauola (Warrington Wolves), Bryce Cartwright (Gold Coast Titans), Zach Dockar-Clay (Hull Kingston Rovers), Peta Hiku (New Zealand Warriors), Samisoni Langi (Catalan Dragons), Leilani Latu (Gold Coast Titans), Te Maire Martin (North Queensland Cowboys), Matt Moylan (Cronulla Sharks), Darren Nicholls (St George Illawarra Dragons), Michael Oldfield (Canberra Raiders), Mitch Rein (Gold Coast Titans), Malakai Watene-Zelezniak (Wests Tigers)|
The draw looks kind yet again for the Panthers, with two shots at the Titans, Warriors, Knights and other less-fancied teams for 2018 in the Bulldogs and Raiders too. On the other hand, one game only against the Storm, Broncos and the Dragons. They do have to face the Cowboys, Sharks and the Eels twice but all in all, you can’t really complain about the hand which the Panthers have been dealt.
NATHAN CLEARY (HFB, $620,500)
2017 average: 69.9
He had some doubters after such an impressive debut ‘half-of-a-season’ in 2016, and just kicked right on with it. Although, he did start slower, with an average of (‘only’) 57.7 PPG in the first 11 games of the season, compared to 80.2 PPG in the remaining 13 games of the season. What else does this breakdown feature? Te Maire Martin playing 5/8 beside Cleary and Matt Moylan playing fullback (first 11 games) vs Moylan playing 5/8 and Edwards playing fullback. 9 of his 11 tries and 7 of his 12 try assists came in the 13 games with Moylan beside him. BUT also 12 of his 16 forced drop outs, which boosted his average by 5.54 PPG as opposed to 2.18 PPG in the first 11 games. Why am I going on about all of this? Because I’m concerned about the impact of James Maloney on Cleary’s scores. Maloney can kick. Maloney can organise an offence. Maloney is experienced, and I’m concerned that if Maloney wants the ball, he’ll get it. That happened with Moylan too (leading to cries of ‘ballhog Moylan’) but his type of ballhogging benefited Cleary – I’m not sure that Maloney’s does.
TRENT MERRIN (2RF, $518,300)
2017 average: 58.4
His average dropped a massive 15.3 PPG from 2016’s 73.7 PPG to 2017 – coinciding with a reduction of his MPG by 11.9 from 66.9 MPG in 2016, to just 55.0 this year. Throw in a bit of a drop off in his work rate as well (PPM of 1.1 in 2016 compared to 1.08 in 2017). Having said that, he had a few things on his plate in 2017, starting with a shortened, and then disrupted, preseason due to rep duties and then a calf injury. Merrin himself has admitted that he struggled with his fitness for the rest of the year, being unable to ‘catch up’ effectively, and his minutes and workrate suffered as a result. Throw in some off-field drama with the breakdown of his well-publicised engagement to Sally Fitzgibbon (no disrespectful comments about her please), and well, you can understand the drop-off.
Now, he’s looking ripped, has talked positively about how much fitter and better he feels, and surely by now he’s gotten over his relationship dramas – who’s on board the Mez Express again? There are concerns remaining about the make-up of the bench, as well as the ongoing emergence of RCG, CHN, Kikau and other promising young forwards, but I’d back Merrin to get more than his 55.0 MPG from last year, even if he doesn’t quite reach the heights of 2016 again.
COREY HARAWIRA-NAERA (2RF, $519,200)
2017 average: 58.5
I bet most of you never realised that he was more expensive than Merrin, and the next highest-averaging Panther from last year aside from Cleary and Moylan the Shark. What a debut season from the rookie affectionately known as “Corey Two-Dads” by some SuperCoaches. What’s funny is that from his 20 games, he played about 9 games where he didn’t play 80 minutes and averaged 58.6; from his 11 80-minute games, he averaged 58.5. Basically, he got the job done and scored pretty much the same either way, due to his penchant for attacking stats. So, it seems that he’s cemented a spot on the right edge beside Cleary, and he ran some really nice lines in attack from both the left and right edges. However, the big downside is that he’s missed almost all the preseason due to his recovery from off-season surgery, and there’s question marks about whether he plays 80 minutes from Round 1.
DYLAN EDWARDS (FLB, $510,700)
2017 average: 57.6
I’ll be upfront about this one – he’s not for me, not in that hotly-contested FLB position. But his numbers are compelling. Firstly, correcting for the one game he played on the wing (scored 79) but also the game where he only played 40 minutes (injured), he averaged 58.3 in his 12 games at fullback. He did that while scoring just the single, solitary try, and notching 5 try assists. Edwards is truly a base stat beast, averaged 32.42 PPG in pure base, and another 11.83 PPG in base attack (i.e. tackle busts and offloads) – that’s an average of 44.25 PPG without counting the rest of his major attacking stats (and of course also not counting his errors and penalties though). Still, he’s a worker, and if he can take that next step and add more tryscoring and playmaking to his bow then he could take the next step to a 65-70 PPG average.
As a reference point, RTS in his 2015 SuperCoach-topping season, averaged 36.75 PPG in pure base, and 7.25 PPG in base attack – a floor of 44.0 PPG (i.e. less than Dylan Edwards!).
VILIAME KIKAU (FRF/2RF, $192,800)
2017 average: 21.6
Got barely any minutes last year, averaging 22.2 MPG in his 9 games in first grade. Even then, in his one game where he got big minutes, he still only scored 38 points in base in 64 minutes of game time. That most likely was on the edge though, although I can’t be sure from what I’ve looked up. In any case, he was great in the World Cup, he has looked strong in the trials, and do I need to remind you that he holds the NYC tryscoring record for a prop in a single season. 21 games, 21 tries… as a prop! Try that on for size, Paul Vaughan and Ryan James. Kikau is a try scorer, and if he gets more time on ground, I reckon the chances of meat only gets higher. Having said that, who knows what Hook will do, but at his price point, and having DPP status as well… it’s handy.
Aside from Kikau, I really can’t see any cheapies popping up at the Panthers, barring a long-term injury.
JAMES MALONEY (5/8, $463,400)
2017 average: 52.2
He had a mediocre year in 2017 for the Sharks, even if he did better than 2016 from a SuperCoach perspective. It’s clear that the way the Sharks attacked did not help him at all, given his past averages when playing at the Roosters. He was generally very helpful to the Sharks on the field, and I would expect that to continue, but the major SuperCoach blow for him is that at the Panthers he appears to have also lost his goalkicking, where he kicked 68 from 78 attempts last year for an 87.12% conversion rate. It also boosted his season average by 13.26 PPG – otherwise he is looking at an average of below 39 PPG! If people are smart, they will leave Maloney to ‘BBQ’ alone!
JOSH MANSOUR (CTW, $451,900)
2017 average: 50.9
I feel dirty putting him in this section, but as long as Peachey plays left centre, it’s not good news for Mansour owners. Although the sample size in 2017 is small, Mansour scored 57.8 PPG when Peachey wasn’t playing left centre. Compare that to 47.9 PPG with Peachey beside him, and it’s not a good sign. Sure, you can argue that Mansour was also not technically 100% since he had just recovered from his ACL injury, and the trend is that the players are often stronger once you are past the 12-18 month recovery period. That should have Mansour primed for a big 2018, but it’s hard to be great when you don’t get the ball passed to you.
Now, that Peachey refused to pass was clearly what we all saw on the field, as Mansour was visibly frustrated at Peachey on multiple occasions. However, just to throw a spanner in the works, Peachey also played beside Mansour at left centre for 13 games in 2016. Mansour’s average in those 13 games? 72.5 PPG – scoring 12 of his 15 tries for the year in those games. So, what happened from 2016 to 2017? I honestly don’t know, but for now I will put Mansour in the “no-go” zone until we stop seeing the 2017 Peachey playing beside Mansour.