Can Panthers hunt down historic three-peat?

    Fatima Kdouh goes through everything you need to know about Penrith in our exclusive club-by-club deep dive series ahead of the 2023 season.2022 RICH 100 REPS: 7Nathan Cleary (1, $1.3m), Viliame Kikau (31, $760k), James Fisher-Harris (33, $750k), Isaah Yeo (45, $710k), Jarome Luai (58, $680k), Stephen Crichton (68, $615k), Apisai Koroisau (90, $510k)FREE AGENCY WRAPPenrith’s pathways are packed with talent but they dipped into free agency to replace Viliame Kikau, after Parramatta poached the best internal option in NSW Cup forward J’maine Hopgood. Wests Tigers forward Luke Garner was added to backrow stocks.In-house, Preston Riki, a mainstay of the title-winning NSW Cup side, is a less viable option after his deal was downgraded to train and trial. Chris Smith filled in on the edge last season but he’ll be challenging for a bench spot. Ativalu Lisati got a taste of NSW Cup last year and while he is highly touted, he’s a work in progress. Jock Madden was earmarked as Sean O’Sullivan’s replacement but instead Jack Cogger returned from Huddersfield. Tyrone Peachey is an interesting signing given his inability to lock down a spot at the Tigers. He can cover in the spine, backs and at lock. Jaeman Salmon has inked a deal to stay at the club after verbally and will provide utility value in the backline. Rating: CCOACH STATUSAfter leading the club to back-to-back premierships and in April inking a deal until the end of 2027, Ivan Cleary enjoys a luxury few NRL coaches get to experience: genuine job security.But that doesn’t mean next season won’t be without challenges.Cleary has lost defensive assistant Cameron Ciraldo and attack mastermind Andrew Webster after the trio formed a formidable brains trust over the past two seasons. Bulldogs new coach Ciraldo leaves Penrith with intimate understanding of the club’s systems, especially in defenceSafety Rating: A+PANTHERS 2023 SQUAD AND BEST 17LIKELY DEBUTANT(S)Centre Thomas Jenkins, forward Liam Henry and playmaker Jack Cole were handed their debuts in Penrith‘s final game of the season, giving Panthers fans a glimpse of the future. Penrith’s 1 to 17 is pretty settled. But there is competition for places, especially from Jenkins and Sunia Turuva in the backs. A fullback, Turuva has shown plenty in NSW Cup and for Fiji at the Rugby League World Cup, where he was named in the team of the tournament. Versatile and safe under the high ball, he played three NRL games last year and will keep the incumbent back-five on their toes. So will Jenkins, who scored 20 tries from 22 matches playing on the wing and at centre in the NSW Cup. Mavrik Geyer (below), the son of Panthers great Mark, was 18th man in round 25 last year and has continued to edge closer to making an NRL debut. Ativalu Lisati is making all the right moves in the lower grades, but a debut appears further down the track. Lisati will be upgraded to the top 30 in 2024.WHO TAKES THE NEXT STEP?Hooker Api Koroisau’s departure leaves a huge dent in Penrith’s well-established spine. But his defection to Wests Tigers will allow Mitch Kenny, who has played a utility role, to finally make a permanent claim to the No. 9 jumper. Kenny’s move into the starting hooker spot has already been endorsed by Koroisau, who praised the 24-year-old’s toughness in the middle of the field.But Kenny’s promotion into the No. 9 jumper is not a foregone conclusion. Soni Luke is also an option. Kenny has NRL experience on his side but Luke has shades of Koroisau in his game – crafty and wily from dummy half. He’ll push Kenny in pre-season for a chance to start.It’s likely a hooking combination will be similar to what Penrith used in the finals series: Kenny starting the game to do the heavy lifting and help soften opponents and then Luke injected into play when the game opens up.THREE BURNING ISSUES1. Roster managementStephen Crichton has indicated he wants to stay at Penrith but won’t rush into a decision. Possible options include a big-money offer from the cashed-up Dolphins or the Bulldogs, who can leverage the Ciraldo connection. That pulling power will be put to the test as Spencer Leniu, who is free to negotiate, is on the Bulldogs’ radar. Rivals can’t touch Liam Martin for another 12 months.2. Halves depthSean O’Sullivan, who proved to be the perfect halves foil in the absence of Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai, is now a Dolphin. In his place, Jack Cogger was added to the top 30 and Tyrone Peachey was granted a release from the Tigers to join Penrith. It leaves the side light in the halves when NSW Blues duo Cleary and Luai are on Origin duties or have injuries.3. Motivation First it was conquering Mount Everest, then it was a Top Gun theme, all mind games dreamt up by the coaching staff to keep players motivated. A three-peat will be even more challenging in 2023. With Ciraldo, the brains behind the motivational exercises, gone, can this Penrith side stay hungry enough to chase down a third title? CRYSTAL BALLOn the field, they’ve lost Api Koroisau and Viliame Kikau. In the coach’s box, Cameron Ciraldo and Andrew Webster. But this Panthers outfit has enough talent to become the first team since Parramatta (1981-83) to win three titles in a row. Three-straight grand finals has given this team invaluable experience. They know what it takes to win big games. Predicted finish: 1stWhere will the Panthers finish in 2023?FINISH FOR THE PAST FIVE YEARS2022: 1st (premiers)2021: 2nd (premiers)2020: 1st (runners-up)2019: 10th2018: 5th (eliminated in second week of finals)2023 ODDSPremiership: $4To make grand final: $2.25Top four: $1.50Top eight: $1.10Most losses: $251

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