Penrith are banking on the injection of three international stars, led by new recruit James Tamou, to take them to them deeper into the NRL finals next season.
The Panthers’ dream run into this year’s finals series ended after their late comeback was thwarted by Canberra in a 22-12 semi-final defeat at GIO Stadium on Saturday night.
Penrith were staring at an 18-0 with just 20 minutes remaining when back-to-back tries cut the deficit to just six points with seven minutes remaining.
However, a lack of discipline at the back end cost arguably the team’s most enterprising team a preliminary final with Melbourne, and will instead spend the summer licking their wounds.
“You never like saying it, but unfortunately we beat ourselves tonight. Eighteen was always going to be hard to run down,” coach Anthony Griffin said post-game.
It ends a mixed season at the foot of the mountains that included the surprise departures of key men Jamie Soward and James Segeyaro mid-season.
But the introduction of 18-year-old Nathan Cleary kick-started a strong back end of the year, while rejuvenated veteran Peter Wallace found a new lease of life at hooker.
The pre-season appointment of Matt Moylan as skipper was also an inspirational choice by new coach Anthony Griffin, with the star fullback also making his State of Origin debut.
The Panthers finished the regular season in sixth place, and took a season-high six-game winning streak into the Raiders clash after surviving an elimination final against Canterbury.
“We definitely developed since the start of the year,” skipper Matt Moylan said.
“A lot of the guys matured throughout the season. That’s a good thing to take out of the season. But the way we finished it tonight, wasn’t what we spoke about throughout the week.”
The focus now turns to 2017, where the inclusion of high-profile recruit in Tamou, together with the return of Kiwi pair Dean Whare and Peta Hiku, is expected to elevate their play.
Whare and Hiku missed most of the season after suffering season-ending knee injuries.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Moylan said.
“I think the players coming through – everyone’s confident. We’ve got some good experience and some good experience coming to the club next year as well.
“It’s a step forward, but we’re going to have to work hard in the off-season and use this as motivation to get back to the finals and play that footy we want to play.”