It’s rare that the signing of two State of Origin halves would raise questioning eyebrows, but Penrith’s recruitment of Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace to steer them around this NRL season has been met with some trepidation.
And not only because both players struggled with their respective former clubs, St George Illawarra and Brisbane, last year.
The Panthers made no secret of the fact they were in the market for a marquee playmaker, but lost out in their bids to lure a Todd Carney, Johnathan Thurston or Shaun Johnson to Sydney’s west.
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary says the questions over whether 29-year-old Soward and 28-year-old Wallace are still capable of leading a team to the finals make him even more confident he’s found the right partnership for his blossoming young side.
“Both guys are in a position where they have a point to prove, which is always a good thing to have,” Cleary said.
“First and foremost they’ve both been there and done that.
“They’re both leaders in their own right and know how to get a team around.”
Cleary’s requests of Soward and Wallace are simple.
He wants the kicking game to improve on last year and he wants them to make the men outside them look better.
Soward in particular will like his chances of finishing the season with a pass mark.
His left-boot is considered one of the best in the game, and when at his best at the Dragons, Soward was able to work behind a dominant forward pack and release the attacking weaponry outside him.
The Panthers have added dynamic ex-Warrior Elijah Taylor and experienced Manly prop Brent Kite to an already promising pack, and big Jamal Idris to a backline overflowing with speed and try-scoring ability.
Cleary said Soward can do the rest.
“The way I see it, Jamie had three very, very good years at the Dragons. Very consistent. He knows how to play, he knows what to do,” he said.
“The real key is how they (Soward and Wallace) can make other people look better and I think both of those guys have those qualities in spades.
“What they can do for some of our young outside backs in particular is even more crucial than what they actually do themselves.”
There seems to be a consensus in rugby league that the Panthers can be a premiership threat in three years time.
But what are they capable of in 2014?
After exceeding expectations last season by finishing 10th, Cleary won’t give too much away about his goals – other than to say he wants his team to improve.
Which, reading between the lines, means a return to the top eight for the first time since 2010.
Cleary says in the pressure moments against the big sides last season, his team couldn’t stand up in defence.
But he believes by recruiting experienced campaigners he can instil the necessary self-belief in his defensive line.
“It was obvious in the pre-season what those guys can bring in terms of confidence and education,” Cleary said.
“Pressure is the big difference in all top level sport.
“When the pressure is on this year I’m very confident we’ll be able to handle it.”
Premierships: 2 – 1991, 2003
Finishes over the past three seasons: 2013 – 10th, 2012 – 15th, 2011 – 12th
Coach: Ivan Cleary
Captain: Kevin Kingston
Gains: Peter Wallace (Broncos), Jamie Soward (Dragons), Elijah Taylor (Warriors), Brent Kite (Sea Eagles), Kevin Naiqama (Knights), Tyrone Peachey (Sharks), Shaun Spence (Tigers), Luke Capewell (Broncos), Jamal Idris (Titans)
Losses: Lachlan Coote (Cowboys), Luke Walsh (St Helens), Mose Masoe (St Helens), Clint Newton (Knights), Danny Galea (Widnes), Travis Robinson (Storm), Blake Austin (Tigers), Cameron Ciraldo (retired), Dayne Weston (Storm), Brad Tighe (Titans), Kyle O’Donnell (Raiders)
Strength: Outstanding talent in the outside backs, with try-scoring potential galore. Nice experience in the forwards with the addition of Elijah Taylor and Brent Kite.
Weakness: Halves. Peter Wallace and Jamie Soward have tasted individual success before, but is their best behind them?
One to watch: Jamal Idris. Failed to reach his full potential on the Gold Coast, but back in Sydney and under the guidance of Ivan Cleary the former NSW star could explode.
Best team: Matt Moylan, Josh Mansour, Dean Whare, Jamal Idris, David Simmons, Jamie Soward, Peter Wallace, Tim Grant, James Segeyaro, Sam McKendry, Lewis Brown, Sika Manu, Elijah Taylor. Interchange: Kevin Kingston (capt), Tyrone Peachey, Brent Kite, Nigel Plum
Predicted finish: 8th