TK's take on the Penrith Panthers:
STRENGTHS Spine - One of the best spines in the NRL. Nathan Cleary stepped up to an incredible level and owned the team with the departure of James Maloney. Api Koroisau was the buy of the year, Jarome Luai stepped up to become one of the premier five-eighths in the comp while Dylan Edwards when fit showed he was a key asset.
Quality of the squad - Right across the park the Panthers are blessed with some of the finest players in the game. To think Queensland State of Origin hero Kurt Capewell will start from the bench. Freak try scorer Charlie Staines steps into the starting team while some competition is brewing between Moses Leota, Spencer Leniu and Matt Eisenhuth to take the prized jersey of former skipper James Tamou. With back up players like Daine Laurie, Matt Burton and Mitchell Kenny the Panthers are a quality team that extends past the top 17.
WEAKNESSES Older heads - The captains arm band moves from James Tamou to Isaah Yeo which is not a concern at all given Yeo rise in the game. Ivan Cleary has moved on Tamou (32 years old), Malakai Watene-Zeleniak (29) and is looking to offload Josh Mansour (30). These older heads helped guide the younger players through a tough season and maybe the move to go with a younger squad may backfire. The older heads in the team now are Api Koroisau (28), Kurt Capewell (27), Dean Whare (30) and Matt Eisenhuth (28) but none of those guys strike me as the type to quickly grasp the roles of Tamou and Mansour.
If we don't have another bubble another concern is around the off field activity of the younger squad. While they had a couple of off-field incidents, the bubble was probably a blessing for the Panthers for players to avoid the temptations of socializing in pubs and clubs after games. Not only does it keep them out of trouble but no doubt aids their recoveries on a weekly basis. Something small to consider but the one percenters count in the NRL.
Squad size - Currently the Panthers only have 26 players contracted and this is with Mansour included. Maybe Cleary has some surprises up his sleeve to promote or sign in to the top squad.
Contract distractions - Daine Laurie and Matt Burton have signed elsewhere for 2022, Josh Mansour looks on the move, while an ongoing saga is building with the contract of Stephen Crichton. Hopefully all of this isn't a significant distraction on the teams on field fortunes.
OPPORTUNITIES Front row - As mentioned a great opportunity for one of Leota, Leniu or Eisenhuth to step up as a starter.
Centre - Brent Naden has had well documented offield issues so this opens up an opportunity for Dean Whare, Tyrone May and even potentially Kurt Capewell to put their hand up for a spot in the centres.
VERDICT - Top 4 and premiership contender. The club will be smarting after their grand final loss to the Storm and will use this as motivation to go one better in 2021. Across the park is quality and they will again be one of the entertainers of the premiership. As mentioned only concerns are the loss of senior players and also the number of player contracts being dragged through the media spotlight. If they can control these two aspects, the Panthers look like one of the teams to beat in 2021.
Where do you see the Panthers finishing in 2021?