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Season review: Panthers

Penrith became the sixth and final team to survive the first week of the NRL finals.
The young side charged into the finals under new coach Anthony Griffin
Photo Source: AAP

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Along with Gold Coast, Penrith were one of the success stories of the 2016 season, given how poor their 2015 campaign was. In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year under new coach Anthony Griffin, the Panthers fell just short of a preliminary final in a season full of close results as 16 games were decided by single figures.

James Segeyaro, Jamie Soward and Elijah Taylor all left but were not missed. Nathan Cleary, James Fisher-Harris and Te Maire Martin more than made up for their absences, although the team really didn't gel until later in the season. After 16 games and a loss to the Sharks in round 18, Penrith were 7-9 and plenty of close losses meant they were in danger of missing the finals for two years running. And then the season turned.

The Panthers won six of their last seven home and away games and burst into the finals on a roll, proving far too good for the Bulldogs before being outgunned by the Raiders a week later. Success came largely on the back of their attacking game, with the side making the most offloads of any in the competition and finishing fifth for tries scored.

Apart from the three youngsters above, players who also fired included Matt Moylan, Peter Wallace (rejuvenated as a hooker after he had almost retired due to knee problems) and Trent Merrin. Peta Hiku and Dean Whare missed a lot of 2016 through injury, so with their returns - and the addition of James Tamou - Penrith are far from done as a potential force.

Six games that shaped the Panthers' season
Round 3: Panthers d Broncos 23-22
Penrith had started well enough but had still suffered two close losses, including a devastating two-point defeat to the Bulldogs in round two. They came into this game really needing a win, though they were immediately behind the eight ball with the withdrawal of Merrin, and things went from bad to worse as they fell behind 22-6 in the first half due to some Anthony Milford excellence. But the Panthers rallied to score the last 17 points of the game, with debutant Martin having the perfect start to his NRL career. Not only did he cross for a try to level the scores at 22-all, he also kept his cool when older heads were losing theirs and kicked the match-winning field goal to give Penrith their first win of 2016.

Round 8: Sharks d Panthers 20-18
Another four weeks of games that could have gone either way meant more frustration for Penrith and their fans, and in one of the games of the season the pattern continued as Cronulla consigned the visitors to their third two-point loss only eight games in. The Sharks made their way out to an 8-0 lead in the first half as they turned the physicality levels up, with Michael Ennis up to his old niggling tricks. Tries to Moylan, Isaah Yeo and Fisher-Harris helped the Panthers grab what looked a good-enough lead until Cronulla took charge again. A brilliant 80-metre try to Valentine Holmes looked to have settled the game, before Fisher-Harris found a gap where there wasn't one to give Soward the chance to tie up the game in the dying minutes with a conversion. He missed, and Penrith lost.

Round 9: Panthers d Raiders 19-18
Penrith couldn't keep playing so well and losing, could they? No. The footy gods intervened in a see-sawing game, with the Panthers better in the first half and the Raiders controlling the second. In a neat reversal of the previous week's fortunes, Wallace kicked a field goal with a couple of minutes to play to secure the win and keep Penrith knocking on the door of the top eight.

Round 18: Sharks d Panthers 26-10
The up-and-down season continued as they followed a pair of wins with a pair of losses and then did it again, with this loss coming to a Cronulla side missing Paul Gallen, Andrew Fifita, Jack Bird, James Maloney and Wade Graham through State of Origin. It was as bad as any performance they had put in all season. Ben Barba starred as Penrith slumped to 7-9 and were in danger of seeing their season slip away, despite all the 'honourable' losses.

Round 20: Panthers d Broncos 31-12
After a tough win over the Eels, plenty was still riding on this game and the next month of footy. Things were getting critical for Penrith's season and someone had to step up. Cleary was the young man. The 18-year-old turned in a masterful kicking game, especially early, with the visitors dominating the first half and never looking back. It was perhaps their best win of 2016 to this point, with Merrin also starring. This game was a real turning point for the Panthers as the side found some momentum, winning five of their next six games to be one of the form sides going into the finals.

Elimination Final: Panthers d Bulldogs 28-12
Canterbury had stumbled into this elimination final having dropped their last three games, which was in stark contrast to a streaking Penrith. They had won their last five, but it was the Dogs who got the early jump as the Panthers were deceived by Moses Mbye. Gradually they gained control, as Dallin Watene-Zelezniak ran onto a beautiful pass out wide from Cleary to bring the margin back to two points at the break. In the second half Josh Mansour ripped through Canterbury's defence to set up a Waqa Blake try, then some team brilliance from the Panthers saw Peter Wallace make his way over and Penrith surged. Tyrone Peachey and Mansour scored to add the cherries on top, and the big finals win was complete. The Panthers would go out the next week to Canberra, but it was a positive season where the foundations were laid for an exciting future.

Can the Panthers back it up in 2017? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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