As part of a series profiling the expected Round 1 sides for all 17 NRL clubs in 2024, it’s time to see if the latest salary cap hits will affect Penrith’s plans for a fourth straight premiership.
The good news for the rest of the NRL is that Penrith has again been weakened by departures after winning the premiership but the bad news is they have a reservoir of talent ready to step up. Penrith will try to become the first team since St George’s 1956-66 glory run to win four successive premierships and they will head into Round 1 as the favorites to achieve the rare feat.
The salary cap has already cost them Spencer Leniu, Stephen Crichton, and Jack Cogger from last year’s Grand Final side while back-up players Jaeman Salmon and Tom Jenkins have also moved on. Jarome Luai has announced 2024 will be his last season before joining Wests Tigers but these hits to the roster aren’t fatal blows to Penrith’s title chances. With their nucleus of Nathan Cleary, Dylan Edwards, Isaiah Yeo, James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota, Brian To’o, and Liam Martin signed long term, they will retain title favoritism right up until the day someone knocks them off.
That team was nearly Brisbane last Grand Final but the Panthers prove their champion qualities with their epic comeback win. They have the only trophy left to win, the World Club Championship, and a trip to the UK to face Wigan on their schedule before around 1 but barring a dramatic form slump or major injury to their keys players, they remain the team to beat.
Who’s new? For a team that annually loses top-line talent due to salary cap constraints, the Panthers have made an artform of picking up bargain basement recruits and getting full value for money. The likes of Cogger, Zac Hosking, Sean O’Sullivan, Tyrone Peachey, and Paul Momirovski have joined at Penrith after being shunted around from club to club and filled their roles with aplomb in providing support to the headline acts.
Daine Laurie returns to the Panthers after an up-and-down stint at the Wests Tigers and will provide cover at five-eighth and fullback while former Raiders half Brad Schneider is the latest playmaker who will look to revive his career as Nathan Cleary’s understudy. With Luai vacating the No.6 jersey in 2025, Schneider could have an early chance to show he can be Cleary’s next long-term halves partner if he makes the most of whatever opportunities come his way this year. Canterbury center Paul Alamoti is another new face and with Crichton’s spot up for grabs, he is also a strong chance of seeing plenty of game time.
Who’s gone? Crichton’s switch to the Bulldogs will be a tough one for the Panthers to swallow. The NSW and Samoa representative had a timely knack of coming up with big attacking plays at crucial moments but the lure of a lucrative deal and a shot at playing fullback on a regular basis was too much for him to knock back. Leniu is another loss that will be almost impossible to replace on the roster – his impact as a bench weapon was the perfect follow-up to Leota and Fisher-Harris setting the early foundation as starting props.
Cogger returning to Newcastle opens the door for Laurie, Schneider, and local junior Jack Cole to see more action in the halves when the main duo are unavailable. Salmon has joined Crichton (and a host of other ex-Panthers players and coach Cameron Ciraldo) at the Bulldogs, young winger Tom Jenkins has linked with the Knights while back-up forwards Chris Smith and Eddie Blacker have been culled from the roster.
Key spots to unlock
Centre is the main dilemma for Ivan Cleary in the countdown to the start of the season. Alamoti showed plenty at Canterbury last season to suggest he can slot into Crichton’s spot while Peachey and Luke Garner were used there on several occasions in 2023. NSW under-19 representative Jesse McLean is also in the mix while Taylan May is another option as he works his way back from a serious knee injury which kept him out all last season although he could end up duking it out with Sunia Turuva for a wing berth.
The Grand Final starting pack is likely to remain as is with the interchange spots down to a battle between Lindsay Smith, Garner, Peachey, Hosking, Mavrik Geyer and Matt Eisenhuth with Soni Luke the back-up dummy-half.
Geyer, Liam Henry, Ativalu Lisati and Australian Schoolboys representative Harrison Hassett are also knocking on the door as forwards for the future. Mavrik Geyer is following in his dad Mark’s footsteps.
Round 1 predicted team
1 Dylan Edwards
2 Sunia Turuva
3 Izack Tago
4 Paul Alamoti
5 Brian To’o
6 Jarome Luai
7 Nathan Cleary
8 James Fisher-Harris
9 Mitch Kenny
10 Moses Leota
11 Scott Sorensen
12 Liam Martin
13 Isaah Yeo
14 Soni Luke
15 Lindsay Smith
16 Zac Hosking
17 Luke Garner
Other squad members: Brad Schneider, Daine Laurie, Harrison Hassett, Taylan May, Mavrik Geyer, Matt Eisenhuth, Liam Henry, Jesse McLean, Tyrone Peachey, Jack Cole, Ativalu Lisati.