26 matches: 16 wins, 10 losses
Top point scorer: James Maloney – 126 [4 tries, 54 goals, 4 field goals]
Top try scorer: Waqa Blake – 13
Merv Cartwright Medal: Isaah Yeo
If word association was to be used to summarise the Panthers 2018 season, then it would need two. But it would still be an accurate summation – comeback kings.
The Panthers had developed a reputation as notoriously slow starters, often conceding double figure half time leads. However, no other team was able to finish as strongly as them. And it made for some tense and exciting finishes for Penrith fans.
The season started and finished with two comebacks – the first one being coming from 14-0 down against western Sydney arch rivals Parramatta in the opening round, and finished with a stirring second half fightback in the semi final against foundation brothers Cronulla after trailing 18-0 late in the first half. The former would finish with a convincing win, the latter with a heart breaking 1 point loss and elimination from the finals race.
If the on field exploits were not enough of a drama, there was plenty off the field too. Anthony Griffin was sensationally sacked in early August, with only four premiership rounds remaining, and at the time the Panthers holding on to fourth spot. The dismissal of coaches during the season was nothing new, but this dismissal was unprecedented given Penrith’s rather lofty position on the ladder. However, Griffin’s spot had been the source of speculation throughout most of 2018, even though he had signed an extension only at the end of the 2017 season. Once Griffin was gone, stories emerged about his coaching style and personality clashes.
Assistant coach and former Panthers forward Cameron Ciraldo was appointed as caretaker coach. He had done his coaching apprenticeship in the lower grades, having won a premiership as coach of the Under 20s in 2015. One of his assistants was Peter Wallace, the former captain who had only retired from playing months before due to a recurrent knee injury.
The Panthers won the first 10 of their first 13 matches, enjoying their best start to a season since 1999.
New recruit James Maloney played a large role in Penrith’s good form early on, and was recognised by leading the Dally M count before it went behind closed doors midway through the season.
When the Panthers defeated the ladder leading Dragons in Round 12, they were competition leaders for the first time since 2015 (albeit by the barest of margins based on percentages).
Penrith’s form was rewarded with four players selected for New South Wales – James Maloney and three debutants in Nathan Cleary, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Tyrone Peachey.
A five match stretch in June and July where the Panthers were only able to register the solitary victory threatened to send the Panthers tumbling not just out of the four but possibly out of the eight, given the rather compacted nature of the table. But the ship was righted somewhat with three straight victories, all of them come from behind.
The first, against Manly at Brookvale Oval, saw the Panthers trail 24-6 with 16 minutes remaining, but an incredible four try burst in just seven minutes saw the visitors score a stirring 28-24 win. It made history by being the biggest comeback with the least amount of time left on the clock. The next week saw the Panthers turn a 26-12 deficit against Canberra at Panthers Stadium into a 40-31 victory after scoring four tries in the last 20 minutes to over run the Raiders. The third, which was Ciraldo’s first in charge as caretaker, saw the Panthers fightback from 16-6 down with less than six minutes remaining against the Gold Coast Titans to force the match into golden point, before a field goal gave them a one point victory.
The Panthers finished the regular rounds by recording their first victory in Melbourne since 2005, and qualifying for their third consecutive finals appearance.
Now with the crown of comeback kings firmly resting on their heads, the Panthers kept justifying their mantle when they came back from 12-2 to defeat the Warriors 27-12 in the first week elimination final. In the second week, the Panthers once again conceded a first half lead against the Sharks in the semi final, only to score three second half tries to have the scores tied up at 20-all with only 13 minutes remaining. However, Cronulla showed their professionalism in the art of closing out tight matches, holding on for a 1 point win.
For the end of season Test matches, of most note was the outgoing Tyrone Peachey on the verge of becoming the 21st Australian Test representative and the shock selection of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak as New Zealand captain.