Panthers unfazed by second-year syndrome

Jarome Luai is unconcerned by the expectations on Penrith's younger NRL stars.
Jarome Luai is unconcerned by the expectations on Penrith's younger NRL stars.

Mention second-year syndrome to a Penrith player and you'll get a wry smile.

The term to describe a player not living up to the promise they showed in a rookie NRL season has been thrown around a lot this pre-season.

Some have taken it seriously so as not to become another cautionary tale but for others like Jarome Luai it's a nonsense notion that smacks of complacency.

And he reckons he has none of it.

"I've heard a lot about second-year syndrome," he tells AAP.

"I just laugh about it.

"I know it won't affect me because I've got this team here and we're all young and enthusiastic and we love our footy.

"We don't think about the pressures or being the hunted or second-year syndrome."

Despite his confident assurances, the 24-year-old five-eighth is one of several Penrith young guns facing a drop off in 2021.

Luai, Stephen Crichton and Brian To'o had breakout seasons for the Panthers last year, establishing themselves as the hottest young talents in the game.

Forwards Moses Leota and Liam Martin weren't rookies by any means, but also had their career seasons to get the Panthers to an unlikely grand final off the back of 17-straight wins.

It's a ridiculously high bar that has been set as the Penrith prepare for another premiership hunt, which starts against North Queensland on March 13.

Everyone, from their big money stars like Nathan Cleary down to the inexperienced teens like Crichton showed so much promise that a premiership is coming.

But that's where the trouble tends to start.

As Luai puts it, they're now the hunted - with rivals using the off-season to work out how to stop what they couldn't last year - not that it worries him.

"I just say bring it on," he said.

"I enjoy the challenge and playing against the best and challenging our own ability as a team.

"We're up for it.

"I don't think we'll ever lose our confidence to be honest."

Last year's skipper James Tamou is now at Wests Tigers with rookie captains Cleary and Isaah Yeo now accountable for the Panthers' leadership in a young group.

At 26, Yeo is still a young man himself but after seven years of first grade he can spot a slip in attitude.

"We just watch how they train and how they act and nothing has changed, they're still as hungry as ever," he said.

"They're still training very well, and they're still really confident.

"I wish I had half of their confidence at their age."

Their hypnotic flare and contagious enthusiasm got the Panthers to the decider opposite Melbourne last year - losing just one regular-season game, plus the only one that mattered.

But Yeo believes confidence hasn't been affected and the typically difficult second season is another norm the Panthers can shun if they train hard enough.

After all, they were told in 2020 they were too inexperienced to make it anywhere near the grand final but they just kept on winning.

"That was a knock on us all year leading into the semis, that we're a young team and inexperienced, but we still won two semi-finals, one against the Roosters who have been there and done that and then we knocked off Souths who could be thereabouts again this year," Yeo said.

"It's nothing to worry about.

"I'd like to think that with pretty much everyone in the team having played in a grand final that will help if we get there again."

Australian Associated Press