This article was first written for the Roar.
And then there were four.
Following the results in the NRL on the weekend, only four teams remain in the hunt for the 2018 premiership – the Melbourne Storm, Sydney Roosters, South Sydney Rabbitohs and Cronulla Sharks.
For the Sharks and the Bunnies, it was as close as can be, with both teams only making it through by the skin of their teeth. The Bunnies beat the Dragons by one point on Saturday night thanks to three field goals by Adam Reynolds, while the Sharks beat the Penrith Panthers by the same margin on Friday night thanks to a Chad Townsend field goal in the 73rd minute.
This is the third year in a row that the Panthers have exited the finals in Week 2. So, if you’re a Panthers fan, will you remember 2018 as a success or a failure?
When you consider the Panthers over the last three years, one thing is clear. They are consistent.
In the last three years, they have progressed to Week 2 of the finals and have finished on the ladder as high as fifth and as low as seventh. Interestingly, the number of wins they have posted each season has also remained consistent, finishing on 32 points in two of those seasons and on 30 in the other.
The other thing that has been consistent for almost the entirety of the Panthers last three seasons is their coach, Anthony Griffin.
When Griffin was removed only five weeks out from the finals, one of the reasons given was that management and the board at Penrith did not think he was capable of taking the team to a premiership.
And if you look at the last three years, perhaps that’s the case, considering Penrith have been extremely consistent both in terms of where they finish on the ladder and where they get knocked out in the finals.
That might be enough for some fans to label this year as a failure, given that the Panthers have seemingly been unable to move further forward in the finals.
It’s important to remember, though, that this year, the Panthers have faced plenty of challenges as a club – let’s look at injuries. At various points throughout the season, players out included Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Viliame Kikau. Others like Dylan Edwards, Josh Mansour and Peter Wallace missed most of 2018.
These are some of the Panthers’ biggest strike weapons and key-position players.
Additionally, Penrith were interrupted by State of Origin this year, with their halves, Nathan Cleary and James Maloney, suiting up for the Blues.
When you take all this into account, it’s fair to say that it’s been a solid season for the Panthers.
But the big question, of course, is what would have happened had Griffin stayed coach and what impact did the coaching circus have on Penrith and their season?
I’ve said to many people throughout this year that Penrith are a club that I don’t like. But that has everything to do with the way they’re is administered and nothing to do with the players.
In fact, there are plenty of players at the Panthers that I am a big fan of, including Kikau, Campbell-Gillard, Cleary, Edwards, Mansour and Isaah Yeo.
I’m not sure Griffin was the right coach for the Panthers, but the more appropriate time to have made the decision to let him go would have been last year instead of making a decision to renew his contract.
It left a sour taste in my mouth to see a coach removed just five weeks out from the finals when the team was performing well.
Not only was the coach removed after fans had been assured otherwise earlier in the year, but then the Panthers made a play at Ivan Cleary and disrupted the season of the Wests Tigers (at a point where the Tigers still had a chance – albeit a slim one – of making the finals).
The next question becomes whether Cameron Ciraldo has done enough to earn himself a go at coaching the team full time.
Ciraldo was Griffin’s assistant and has been the caretaker coach for the Panthers since Griffin was removed.
Whilst Ciraldo has done an admirable job, I know that teams tend to lift for caretaker coaches and I wonder whether he has done himself to earn himself a crack at the full-time gig – particularly since the Panthers signalled that Cleary was the man they were interested in.
Were the Panthers to offer Ciraldo a gig, I am of the view that it should be for one year and no longer.
There’s never an off-season when it comes to rugby league. And the Panthers are one club that have a couple of pretty significant decisions to make.
I just hope that whomever they appoint can progress the team past the semi-finals – otherwise I wonder how long that coach will last.