NRL Preview: Round 1
The Panthers season kicks off as they travel to UOW Jubilee Oval in Kogarah to take on St George-Illawarra Dragons - 4.30pm Saturday.
Coach Anthony Griffin has named Kiwi internationals Peta Hiku and Dean Whare on the wings as they make their competitive return from ACL injuries that ended their 2016 campaigns.
Te Maire Martin starts at five-eighth to form a youthful halves combination with Nathan Cleary, meaning Bryce Cartwright returns to a more familiar back row spot alongside former Dragon Trent Merrin. New recruits James Tamou and Tim Browne make their club debuts at prop and off the bench, respectively.
Opposition coach Paul McGregor has called upon a host of new faces as the Dragons look to improve on a disappointing 2016 season where points proved hard to come by. Off-season recruits Nene Macdonald, Cameron McInnes and Paul Vaughan are named in the run-on side, while speedy youngster Jai Field is set to make his debut from the bench.
The Panthers come in to the match boosted by a strong pre-season. A fairytale Auckland Nines campaign ultimately fell one game short of glory in the Grand Final before they comfortably dispatched the Bulldogs and Eels in trial matches.
The Dragons have had less to celebrate following a patchy start to 2017. Their Auckland Nines tournament was cut short after failing to qualify out of their pool before succumbing to a heavy defeat at the hands of South Sydney in the Charity Shield.
Despite the differing form of both sides, the Dragons hold the wood over the Mountain Men in recent years. Having only met once in each of the past two seasons, the Dragons emerged victorious on both occasions.
Last year’s clash at WIN Stadium looked set to go the way of the Panthers when Josh Mansour scored to give his side the lead after 73 minutes but Josh Dugan’s try four minutes later proved to be the difference as the hosts ran out 14-12 winners.
Penrith’s record at UOW Jubilee Oval makes for equally unpleasant reading having lost 24 of their past 28 matches at the ground. The home side will look to maintain the upper hand in this fixture and ride the wave of their recent form in the beach town.
However, with several players back from injury and the addition of two highly-prized recruits the Panthers will enter the match full of confidence. After building momentum during the back end of 2016, the platform is set for another exciting season in 2017.