Double roster bomb ticking for Panthers
The Penrith Panthers are about to face a raft of tough decisions over their roster, rugby league great Peter Sterling says, as they try to retain the best talent from their dominant 2020 side.
The Panthers lost just two games all year, one of them being Sunday's grand final against Melbourne.
They remain almost intact for next season but have key players coming off contract on November 1, available to take bids from rival clubs for 2022 onwards.
Off-contract players include NSW State of Origin rookies Jarome Luai, Stephen Crichton and Isaah Yeo, plus Matt Burton, Kurt Capewell, Mitch Kenny, Spencer Leniu, Josh Mansour, Brent Naden and Zane Tetevano.
Penrith have something of a salary cap double whammy: they face inevitable contract upgrades due to both a strong season and the rise of many young players. With another strong campaign expected next year, their cap pressure will only increase.
"They're in really good shape next year," Sterling told Wide World of Sports, reviewing the Panthers' season with Mat Thompson.
"They obviously lose a real leader in James Tamou, who's off to the Wests Tigers, but they've pretty much retained all those young players coming through.
"That will be the difficulty for them in the coming years, to keep everyone together, because they're going to appreciate in value, these young players.
"But the nucleus of the squad is really there. They've got a young spine. Dylan Edwards was outstanding, he'll have Charlie Staines putting pressure on him as well, so there's pressure coming up from outside the group.
"Luai and [Nathan] Cleary were fantastic. I don't know what's going to happen with Matt Burton but if he's there, he's going to continue to put pressure and Luai.
"And to me, Api Koroisau was the buy of the year and has still got plenty of football left in him, and Mitch Kenny is a great understudy as well. So they've got an excellent run-on 13, they've got a great bench, but they've also got players that are going to keep pressure on that 17.
"The difficulty is going to be keeping all those young players because if Matt Burton's not getting any footy, and he didn't get any this year ... I imagine he's frustrated by that and other clubs see the value in a Matt Burton. He'd be snapped up, there'd be six other clubs, like 'that', that would be interested in Matt Burton.
"He'll want to be a part of what's happening at Penrith but if you're not getting footy, all of a sudden pastures elsewhere can look a lot greener."
Burton, 20, looks a genuine star but was kept out of the side by Luai's excellent form. Luai will undoubtedly be a major priority for re-signing, having entirely justified his standing as Cleary's preferred halves partner. Burton would still be up against tough competition at Penrith if he converted to a ball-playing back-rower, given that Yeo, Viliame Kikau and Liam Martin were all superb this season.
The Dubbo product has been touted as a potential target for the Bulldogs, where 2020 Panthers assistant Trent Barrett has just started as head coach. Canterbury just signed Kyle Flanagan on a three-year deal, after the young halfback was released by the Roosters despite a decent season.
Fullback prospect Staines was also touted as a possible Bulldogs target but re-signed with Penrith during the season, following an incredible four-try debut on the wing. Right centre Naden may be second-guessing his standing at Penrith after being benched for both the preliminary and grand final matches.
The player who replaced Naden in the starting side for those games, utility Tyrone May, remains unsigned for next season but it expected to stay with the Panthers. Back-up fullback Caleb Aikens is also unsigned, while fiery prop Jack Hetherington has joined the Bulldogs on a two-year contract.
Mansour seems another obvious re-signing priority, as a loyal Panthers clubman who is coming off a big season. Along with fellow winger Brian To'o, Mansour offered Penrith exceptionally powerful starts to sets coming out of their own end.
The problem, though, it fitting all their stars under the salary cap and they may rely on some taking 'unders' on new contracts. The obvious incentive for players to stick with Penrith is the chance to compete for premierships for the foreseeable future, yet coach Ivan Cleary and Panthers officials will likely encounter plenty of cap headaches.
For now, Penrith are sifting through the wreckage of their grand final loss, in which they trailed the Storm 22-0 at half-time.
"They'll learn from that, they'll be smarting from that. I can tell you that they'll carry the loss forever, but they'll carry the hurt through into the pre-season and that will be a huge motivator going into next year," Sterling said.
"I have never been of the belief that you have to lose a grand final to win a grand final but in this instance, it's a major education for the Penrith Panthers. What they learnt out of this game will carry them. They've just got to put themselves in a position like this again.
"That's the disappointing thing: when you've been all good so year, you lose one game, you come into the grand final and you don't play your best football. The Melbourne Storm gave us what we expected from the Melbourne Storm. We didn't quite get what we were expecting and hoping for from the Penrith Panthers.
"It's all there. They just need to continue to work hard, learn from this experience, get better in all areas of the game.
"I think they did get flustered by the scoreboard to some degree. A lot of play-the-ball mistakes and in your haste to get back into the game, those are the kind of errors that occur, so you just need to be mentally tougher.
"They maintained their belief, they maintained their energy, they just got a little bit loose in trying to get back into the game. You have to go through that to learn from it."