Favouritism can be a heavy burden. In NRL.com's club-by-club series delving into the 2017 season analytics, Paul Zalunardo and Alicia Newton examine how early competition favourites Penrith Panthers fought back from a slow start to the season to scrape into back-to-back finals appearances for the first time since 2004.
The Panthers will look back on their season thinking what could have been after being dubbed premiership specials before a ball had been kicked.
A 2-7 record to start the season forced Anthony Griffin to switch up the side's attacking spine in a bid to spark a late run of form.
The positional changes proved a masterstroke with Matt Moylan shifting into the halves to work with Nathan Cleary. The return of injured Australian international Josh Mansour also proved handy as Penrith leaped into the finals on the back of 11 wins in their final 15 games.
"The early favouritism probably didn't sit well with us," Panthers back-rower Isaah Yeo told NRL.com.
"We trained well in the off-season and never talked about it, but obviously we didn't get off to the best of starts and put pressure on ourselves early."
Penrith have since lost Moylan to the Cronulla Sharks but welcome experienced premiership-winner James Maloney to partner Cleary in the halves.
The emergence of young guns Edwards, Corey Harawira-Naera and Tyrone May over the course of last season is enough for Panthers fans to remain hopeful of a top-four finish next year.
Penrith enjoyed eight wins from their 12 home fixtures, but an average winning margin of less than six points suggests those successes weren’t all walks in the park. A 5-7 record away from Pepper Stadium was largely due to the fact they conceded above the league average in terms of points allowed.
"There were a few close games and it was rewarding we were able to grind out wins against quality sides on home turf," Yeo said.
"We managed to win seven games together at one point and most were at home which helped with us getting back on track."
Talented halfback Nathan Cleary’s willingness to back up his forwards in the middle of the park was evident in the fact 64% of his tries were scored in the middle third of the field. Cleary also topped the NRL point-scoring list for 2017.
Despite a tremendous net gain average of 40.3m per kick from hooker Peter Wallace, as a team the Panthers finished slightly below the league average. According to NRL.com/stats, Nathan Cleary topped the NRL for total kicks with 287.
"There isn't a whole lot more to add about Nath, he was a real star for us and steered the side around well," Yeo said. "I thought he handled his second season tremendously and deserved all the awards he received."
Dylan Edwards and Nathan Cleary led the way as the four of Penrith’s smaller players dominated their supports and decoys. Edwards and Cleary finished first and second in the NRL in this category.
"I've just got to keep trying my best each week and look to get involved as much as possible for the side," Edwards said. "Our forwards really helped me towards the end of the season to allow me to have room to move."
The powerful running game of Dean Whare was evident in the fact his average result of 9.84m gained was good enough to rank him 12th in the NRL.
Centre Tyrone Peachey was the chief culprit for the Panthers in this department, conceding 17 penalties in the 25 matches he played. Rugged forwards Trent Merrin and Reagan Campbell-Gillard did well to each concede just nine penalties.
Matt Moylan and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak both finished the year with 26 errors to top a list no player wants to be on. As a team the Panthers made the fourth-most errors of the 16 clubs.
Penrith prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard attracted three or more tacklers on more than half of his charges. James Tamou and Trent Merrin also both finished comfortably inside the top 30 in the NRL.
"They're big bodies and it made my job easier coming into the NRL with those guys around me," Harawira-Naera said.
"You've also got Carty (Bryce Cartwright) and Fish (James Fisher-Harris) who have already jumped out of the blocks early this pre-season after playing out of position. I know I've got a bit of work to do to catch up to them all."
Tyrone Peachey proved to be the biggest difference-maker off the bench for the Panthers during the seven matches he started from the bench. His differential ranked him 10th in the NRL.
"Peach is one of the most under-rated players in the game," Yeo said. "We definitely felt his energy whether that be in the starting side or coming off the bench. I thought he was one of our more consistent players this year."
It was pretty much a one-man band for the Panthers when it came to kicking the ball and the virtuoso performer was Nathan Cleary. The teenage halfback finished second in the NRL in total kick metres, a mere 19 behind Mitchell Pearce.