NRL 2022: Penrith Panthers season preview, roster analysis, predicted finish, round 1 best 17

The Panthers conquered the NRL premiership mountain in 2021, now the pressure is on to prove they are hungry enough to win back-to-back titles.

The Panthers have lost a few key players from their 2021 premiership-winning squad but will head into 2022 full of confidence with a line-up still loaded with talent.

Nick Walshaw takes a deep dive into what to expect from Ivan Cleary’s men in 2022.

FINISHES THE PAST FIVE YEARS

2021: Premiers

2020: Grand finalists

2019: 10th

2018: 5th

2017: 7th

2022 ODDS

Premiership: $5

Top four: $1.60

Top 8: $1.08

Most losses: $126

Can the Panthers win back-to-back premierships in 2022? Picture: Chris Hyde/Getty Images
Can the Panthers win back-to-back premierships in 2022? Picture: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

FULL 2022 SQUAD

Eddie Blacker, Nathan Cleary, Stephen Crichton, Dylan Edwards, Matt Eisenhuth, Kurt Falls, James Fisher-Harris, J’maine Hopgood, Robert Jennings, Mitch Kenny, Viliame Kikau, Api Koroisau, Spencer Leniu, Moses Leota, Jarome Luai, Liam Martin, Taylan May, Sean O’Sullivan, Lindsay Smith, Jaeman Salmon, Chris Smith, Scott Sorensen, Charlie Staines, Izack Tago, Brian To’o, Isaah Yeo.

**Four roster spots still available

INS: Sean O’Sullivan (Warriors), Chris Smith (Bulldogs).

OUTS: Billy Burns (Dragons), Matt Burton (Bulldogs), Kurt Capewell (Broncos), Tyrone May (released), Paul Momirovski (Roosters), Brent Naden (Bulldogs), Tevita Pangai Junior (Bulldogs).

SQUAD STRENGTHS & WEAKNESSES

How do the Panthers cover the loss of Matt Burton and Kurt Capewell? This more than any other question, will define their title defence. Obviously losing your two starting centres isn’t ideal but, as we have suggested already, Stephen Crichton can cover a big chunk of that while young gun Izack Tago is a kid with plenty of promise. Up front, the loss of Capewell means both Viliame Kikau and Liam Martin — who at times provided impact and X-factor from the bench — will now both start. As a result, the Panthers will need to chase some additional forward depth and will likely use its remaining squad spots for exactly that.

Viliame Kikau is expected to get more game time as a starter in 2022. Picture: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images
Viliame Kikau is expected to get more game time as a starter in 2022. Picture: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

PLAYERS IN 2021 RICH LIST: Three

11. Nathan Cleary $940,000

67. Viliame Kikau $635,000

95. Api Koroisau $470,000

COACH STATUS AND SAFETY RATING

Ivan Cleary not only cemented his future with last season’s grand final win, but also ensured he will never own that ugliest, and most unwanted, of rugby league coaching hoodoos — most NRL premiership games without a title. Of course, Cleary has a few other things going for him too. Like, say, overseeing the strongest defence wall in the competition. Or the fact players right through the club want to win for him. Throw in too that small matter of him being the old man to a Panthers No.7 who isn’t only the club’s best player now, but could eventually sit among the Panthers’ greatest ever.

Safety rating: A+

WHAT THEY NEED TO TWEAK

While it won’t simply be a case of rinse and repeat, it’s hard to suggest too many changes to a side that won the NRL title. Outstanding defensively, the Panthers conceded just 286 points for the year – better than every one of their rivals. Consider too that Nathan Cleary played roughly the final two months of the year with a busted shoulder, leaving us all to guess exactly what heights he will reach in 2022.

Nathan Cleary will be key to Penrith’s chances again in 2022. Picture: Matt Roberts/Getty Images
Nathan Cleary will be key to Penrith’s chances again in 2022. Picture: Matt Roberts/Getty Images

FREE AGENCY WRAP

OK, Penrith have hardly set the player market alight just yet. But worry? No. Apart from having four spots still available in their roster, and having that greatest of junior nurseries, this is also the club that waited until mid-year to catapult no less than Tevita Pangai Jr into its playoff charge. Which worked out OK.

Elsewhere, Warriors recruit Sean O’Sullivan shapes as a strong replacement come Origin time — when a host of Panthers will be called upon by NSW Origin coach Brad Fittler — and will also help ease the pain of losing Dally M centre Matt Burton, who is equally strong at five-eighth or fullback.

O’Sullivan is also a local junior, too. And we all know how these stories seem to be going out west. In fact, when last at Penrith in 2016, the playmaker captained a Panthers SG Ball side featuring Brian To’o and Mitch Kenny to the premiership and national title.

Fellow recruit Chris Smith could also surprise in his homecoming, potentially going straight into an interchange spot.

Rating: C

WHICH PLAYER CAN THEY REINVENT?Stephen Crichton.

After spending this past year shifting between centre, wing and fullback (when Dylan Edwards was injured), Crichton finally has the chance to establish himself as one of the game’s premier three-quarters. Which isn’t exactly a reinvention, but close enough. Apart from owning one of the most unforgettable grand final tries, the 21-year-old also has the chance to become one of the first players coach Cleary picks every week, but go earn himself that Dally M centre gong won this year by Matt Burton.

WILL DEVELOPMENT CONTRACT UPGRADED KIDS MAKE AN IMPACT?

None of this year’s development players have moved into the top squad, although both Thomas Jenkins and Sunia Turuva have held their spots. The other big in is Mavrick Geyer, son of Penrith legend Mark ‘MG’ Geyer. A backrower who starred in the Panthers’ Jersey Flegg side, Geyer was approached by Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy for a switch next year, but has opted to stay with the club where his father made his name. An undeniable case of watch this space.

WHO TAKES THE NEXT STEP?Charlie Staines.

Staines should be in every discussion about rugby league’s fastest man in 2022. Despite travelling quicker than bad news through a bush town, 21-year-old Staines has struggled to maintain an NRL wing spot over the past 18 months, thanks largely to a run of hamstring injuries. Yet given Penrith moved club favourite Josh Mansour on for him, this Next Big Thing looms as a contender for breakout star of 2022.

Charlie Staines is primed for a big year if he can stay injury-free. Picture: Matt King/Getty Images
Charlie Staines is primed for a big year if he can stay injury-free. Picture: Matt King/Getty Images

IT’S A BIG YEAR FOR ...Nathan Cleary.

Cleary is now an Origin winner, NRL premiership winner and still yet to reach his potential. How far will the kid go? Who knows? But undoubtedly, the ride will be worth the price of admission. Another who can go to new levels in 2022 is Stephen Crichton (as mentioned above), while more will also be expected from Jarome Luai. While an undeniable talent, the Mt Druitt livewire went a little quiet after Origin but now gets to benefit from not only the confidence that comes with winning a premiership, but also spending another pre-season working with his great mate Nathan Cleary.

CAPTAINCY CONTENDERS

No changes, with Nathan Cleary and Isaah Yeo to remain as co-captains.

Panthers' best 17 for 2022

1. Dylan Edwards
2. Charlie Staines
3. Stephen Crichton
4. Izack Tago
5. Brian To’o
6. Jarome Luai
7. Nathan Cleary
8. Moses Leota
9. Api Koroisau
10. James Fisher-Harris
11. Viliame Kikau
12. Liam Martin
13. Isaah Yeo
14. Spencer Leniu
15. Scott Sorenson
16. Sean O’Sullivan
17. Chris Smith

WHERE THEY FINISH IN 2022Title contenders

Hard to imagine this mob won’t be there when it matters again in 2022. Importantly, the side will keep the same spine of Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Api Koroisau and Dylan Edwards, the last of whom must surely rate among the most underrated players in the game. Still, the challenges will come from everywhere in the new year. Think, for example, South Sydney coming within one play of a premiership without Latrell Mitchell. Or the Roosters making the top eight with effectively everyone bar Trent Robinson donning boots. And still we haven’t got to Melbourne.

FOX SPORTS LAB’S AARON WALLACE SAYS …

Penrith scored just 42 points in four games in the finals, yet still won the competition – a testament to how exceptional their defence is. They conceded just 11.6 points per game — the second fewest by any team in the NRL era (since 1998) – only Storm, in 2007, conceded fewer (10.9 per game).

On top of this, their kicking game was nothing short of superb and if Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai stay healthy, they will be right in the running for back-to-back titles. Cleary forced 25 drop outs and Luai 19 in 2021 – that’s first and second in the comp.

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