Penrith fall short, but future looks bright
IT was another year for Penrith that promised so much but failed to meet their high expectations.
Once again, the Panthers had genuine title credentials when leading the competition at the midway mark, but ultimately fell short having exited in the early stages of the finals. Staggering depth helped the side through lingering injuries to key players, but an inability to consistently compete for the entire 80 minutes of matches brought them undone at numerous stages of the year.
Instability off the field surrounding former coach Anthony Griffin didn't help the side, however Cameron Ciraldo did an admirable job stepping into the interim role prior to the finals campaign.
While the season should by no means be deemed a failure, it's hard not to think that this talented squad has missed another opportunity to claim the title that's eluded them since 2003.
Despite the premature finish to the year, the depth coming through the ranks and additional time for James Maloney and Nathan Cleary to work on their combination bodes well for 2019.
WHERE THEY FINISHED
5th (finals week two)
WHAT WENT WRONG?
New halves James Maloney and Nathan Cleary had a tough task gelling having played just 13 regular season games together for Penrith.
Outside of their week one finals masterclass, it felt as though the pairing never really hit their straps together and that hindered the rest of the side.
Individually they both had strong seasons, but together they didn't click as well as many had hoped when Maloney's signing was announced.
Look no further than the final five minutes of Penrith's semi-final clash with Cronulla.
On numerous occasions, the pair appeared to step on each other's toes while trying to lead the team to an accessible position to attempt a match-levelling field goal. It was messy.
They found natural improvement during the latter stages of the year in a great sign for the side going forward.
Cleary's expected re-signing will do wonders for the club, with the 20-year-old more than capable of leading the side to the cusp of a premiership alongside Maloney next season.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Penrith were littered with depth across every position. They refused to take a backwards step with each injury throughout the season.
Corey Harawira-Naera, Tyrone May, Caleb Aekins and Jarome Luai are among a number of outstanding talents at the club who either couldn't crack the starting 13 or, in some cases, the top squad altogether.
The Panthers are losing key men over the off-season, but they'll have no trouble filling the vacancies, with gun fullback Dylan Edwards (shoulder) another star set to return from injury.
For a perfect example of how the club's ability to dig deep, look no further than the Origin-affected Round 17. The depleted Panther cubs thrashed the near full-strength Warriors 36-4 that night with Luai scoring an exceptional brace of tries.
STATS THAT SUM UP THE SEASON
James Maloney missed an NRL-high 131 tackles. The five-eighth missed 31 more than second-placed Ben Hunt and 41 more than third-placed Luke Brooks.
KEY AREA THEY NEED TO IMPROVE
Aside from the brilliant week one finals performance, Penrith struggled to recognise that rugby league is an 80-minute game.
Plenty of victories involved running down big leads late, and an inability to play out the 80 minutes ultimately brought their season undone when falling 18 points behind Cronulla in the semi-final.
It highlighted Penrith's relentless attacking ability when chasing points, but also that the relatively youthful squad are still maturing as a football team.
They'll learn plenty from the 2018 season that they can hopefully translate into higher successes next year.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE SEASON
For 80 minutes against the New Zealand Warriors in the first week of finals, everything went perfectly to plan for the Mountain Men.
After giving up an early two-try deficit, a game-changing 40/20 from five-eighth James Maloney swung the momentum in Penrith's favour and they never gave it up.
The kicking game of the halves was near perfection, their completion rate was outstanding, and they never allowed their opposition back into the contest.
LOWLIGHT OF THE SEASON
A 50-18 drubbing by the Brisbane Broncos in Round 19 was an unpleasant watch for supporters.
The home side racked up eight tries to three against the woeful Panthers who left Suncorp Stadium with their tails between their legs.
BIG NAME RECRUITS
Tim Grant (Wests Tigers, 2019)
BIG NAME LOSSES
Christian Crichton (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Tom Eisenhuth (Melbourne Storm), Corey Harawira-Naera (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Tyrone Peachey (Gold Coast Titans)
2019: BEST POSSIBLE SCENARIO
James Maloney and Nathan Cleary hit their straps as a combination, leading a hardened Penrith outfit towards a long overdue grand final.
2019: WORST POSSIBLE SCENARIO
Off-field drama continues to embroil the club, with the side finishing at the tail end of the top eight before making yet another underwhelming early finals exit.
COACH SAFETY RATING: 4
Cameron Ciraldo's job security is extremely hard to assess due to the lack of information to come out of the club since Anthony Griffin's late season departure.