Panthers 2016 Season Review
The Panthers' year of transition was a season of success as a young Penrith outfit went agonisingly close to a preliminary finals berth and a shot at a Telstra Premiership grand final appearance.
With a new coach in Anthony Griffin and a roster which saw a significant shake up, the Panthers played an exciting brand of football which caught the attention of the Pepper Stadium faithful and rugby league fans alike.
With 16 of their 26 games in 2016 decided by eight points or less, Panthers fans were often left on the edge of their seats. Things could have ended differently if they were able to convert some of those tight losses to victories and ensure a top-four finish, but the work done this season looks set to hold the side in good stead in the years to come.
Where they excelled: This Panthers outfit loved to chance their arm, producing 327 offloads across the season, the most of any NRL side. Bryce Cartwright (75) and Trent Merrin (56) led the way in this area, finishing first and fourth in the competition for this stat. It may have served them well, but conversely it could have also contributed to…
Where they struggled: Errors. The Panthers made 231 mistakes, fourth-most in the NRL behind the Dragons (232), Sharks (235) and Roosters (263). While second-phase play is often beneficial and leads to an attractive style of play, ball control is fundamental and proved costly particularly in the side's semi-final loss to the Raiders. Also of concern was the number of missed tackles (778), with only the Titans (799), and last-placed Knights (875) missing more.
Missing in action: Penrith boasted incredible depth in 2016, and it was needed when both first-choice centres Dean Whare and new recruit Peta Hiku missed the majority of the season, combining for just 12 games. Experienced heads Jamie Soward and James Segeyaro also featured in just 12 and four games respectively before the club opted to head in a different direction, while Te Maire Martin's impressive start to his first grade career was brought to a premature halt with a shoulder injury. Impressive front-rower Reagan Campbell-Gillard also missed his side's finals campaign after a back injury in Round 25 ended his season.
Turning point: Despite having Soward still on the books, Griffin turned to 18-year-old Nathan Cleary for Penrith's trip to face Melbourne at AAMI Park. A first grade debut is tough at any venue, let alone against the Storm on their home turf. Cleary showed composure beyond his years making 38 tackles on debut, and while the Panthers went on to lose that night, they bounced back with a huge come-from-behind win at Brookvale Oval the following week. The young No.7's inclusion was a big reason for the side's late run of victories towards the finals as he stamped himself as an NRL star of the future.
Hold your head high: Trent Merrin. Missed just one game in his first year at the foot of the mountains and established himself as one of the game's finest middle men despite his omission from the NSW squad for the entire 2016 State of Origin series. Finished the season with 3,891 run metres (the fifth-most of any player in the NRL), 862 tackles (13th) and 56 offloads (4th) and will lead a young Panthers pack forward in the coming years.
2017 crystal ball: Given the age of the squad, there's plenty of upside in this group. A top-eight finish was a good start, but given another pre-season, further NRL experience and the addition of NSW and Australia front-rower James Tamou, this Panthers squad has the potential to push for a top four spot.
Conclusion: 2016 will be viewed as a good step forward for the Panthers. Despite falling in the second week of the finals, their top-six finish was perhaps ahead of where many thought this inexperienced side would be at this stage of their development.
Speaking after their semi-final loss to the Raiders, captain Matt Moylan said there was cause for optimism.
"I think we definitely developed from the start of the year. A lot of the guys matured from the start of the season and I think that's a good thing to take into next season," Moylan said.
With the Panthers academy humming along and producing countless young stars and the Holden Cup side continuing to power on despite losing some of their best players to the first grade squad, there's plenty to like about what's to come from the western Sydney powerhouse. 2016 was perhaps the year Penrith established themselves as a finals force for the foreseeable future.
SEASON STATISTICS (After 26 Rounds)
Position: 6th (eliminated in Finals Week 2)
Home Record: 8-4
Away Record: 6-6
Longest Winning Streak: 6 (Round 22-Finals Week 1)
Longest Losing Streak: 2 (Round 1-2, 11-13 (Round 12 bye), 17-18)
Players Used: 28
Tries Scored: 96
Tries Conceded: 80
This article first appeared on NRL.com.