In the wake of the Panthers two-point defeat to the Dragons, we take a step back from the disappointment and consider some of the positives to come from the season so far.
- Te Maire Martin and James Fisher-Harris have made their NRL debuts and already shown signs they are on track for long and successful careers in the competition. It's easy to forget both these Panthers are only 20 years old. Martin made headlines with his heroics to help win the game against the Broncos, while James Fisher-Harris has embraced the physicality of the NRL and laid on a skilful try assist for Peta Hiku against the Dragons.
- The Panthers have also seen Trent Merrin, Peta Hiku, Suaia Matagi and Sitaleki Akauola make their club debuts. A physical ball-runner with a great ability to find the offload, Akauola continues to impress in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW and will no doubt return to the NRL at some point this season. Merrin is a natural leader for the young Panthers squad, on and off the field, while Matagi is an intimidating force in both attack and defence. There was much discussion when the Panthers opted to sign Hiku midway through the pre-season but the Kiwi international has already justified the faith, scoring four tries in his first four games.
- The three games the Panthers have lost this season have been by a combined total of 12 points. In all three matches the Panthers were right in the contest until the last couple of minutes, or in the case of the Bulldogs game, the final seconds. While it's frustrating to walk away defeated on these occasions, the fact the Panthers were within touching distance of victory should be seen as a positive. It means only small improvements, not major overhauls of the squad and tactics, are required to achieve the wins moving forward.
- While the Panthers attack has at times looked disjointed, the defence has largely been spirited and scrambled with an impressive sense of urgency and desperation. You'll hear it said over and over - successful seasons are built on a foundation of solid defence. The Panthers held premiership favourites Brisbane scoreless in the second half, and repelled the Dragons for five consecutive sets in the first half as they camped themselves on the tryline. The organisation and character they've shown in defence should give every fan hope they can now begin building up their potency in attack.
- The return of Josh Mansour. After successive injuries derailed his 2015 season, Sauce has really started to hit his straps in the first few rounds of this year. In the Panthers last two games Mansour has run more than 200m with some devastating kick returns and tough hit-ups out of trouble. Against the Dragons he made two linebreaks and scored what could have been the match-winner.
- Look through the Panthers squad and you'll see we're building a backbone of young and talented players gradually learning the intricacies of their roles. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak is only 20 years old, Reagan Campbell-Gillard is 22, while Bryce Cartwright, Isaah Yeo and Waqa Blake are all 21 years of age. And of course don't forget Matt Moylan, aged 24. Their best football is still ahead of them and every disappointing defeat comes with lessons to be learned for the many games to come.
- On the injury front, Moylan's return from a stress fracture in his back is imminent. He will soon be followed by James Segeyaro (broken arm) and Dean Whare (calf tear). After spending the last couple of months in the rehab group, George Jennings and Sione Katoa were back in action for the Panthers Intrust Super Premiership NSW side on Sunday and their availability will no doubt force all players in the NRL squad to fight even harder for their spots over the coming weeks.
- Finally, this week we move into the $22 million state-of-the-art Panthers Rugby League Academy. The players will have access to the best dedicated training facilities in the NRL, and arguably, in Australian professional sport. Panthers members will get a chance to take a tour of the Academy in the near future so stay tuned for more details.