INJURY-ravaged Penrith must battle without fresh troops because the salary cap is preventing coach Ivan Cleary from selecting any more new players this season.
On top of heavily back-ended contracts causing long-term headaches, the struggling Panthers are now in a complete bind because their second-tier salary cap is at breaking point.
The Daily Telegraph can reveal Penrith are already within $5000 of the $350,000 limit after using 30 players in the first nine weeks.
General manager Phil Gould last night conceded Cleary's team selection was now at the mercy of NRL cap auditor Ian Schubert, who must be consulted for relief should the club wish to blood juniors.
But Schubert will only agree if there's no fit bodies - who've previously played in the same position - available.
"The rules are there, so it looks like we'll be unable to blood any kids in first grade this season for development purposes," Gould said.
"Being brutally honest, it's going to be a tough ask to make the finals so a big focus was giving some of our younger players a taste of NRL.
"But we can't do that without breaching the cap. We're effectively in the position where the salary cap auditor is picking the team for us."
Even before the loss of NRL squad members Michael Gordon, Nathan Smith, Nigel Plum, Greg Waddell and Junior Tia Kilifi to long-term injury, Penrith were hamstrung.
Released forwards Junior Paulo (Parramatta) and Yileen Gordon (Moore Park) account for one third of the second-tier cap, while three-quarter Junior Vaivai cannot play NRL until an outstanding criminal charge is resolved.
This weekend, only five players are eligible from NSW Cup feeder side Windsor Wolves.
And with Luke Lewis and Michael Jennings certain to be picked for NSW, the squeeze will grow even tighter ahead of next Saturday night's trip to Townsville. To make matters worse, Penrith have just been fined $30,000 for breaching the second-tier cap last season.
Cautious not to re-offend, football manager Phil Moss is in regular contact with Schubert. And Gould will raise the plight among broader western Sydney issues when he personally meets NRL boss David Gallop on Monday.
"One of the key things is that our young players are the key to this club going forward," Gould said. "We want to promote them, but at the moment we can't.
"At the same time, the club has to take responsibility for the situation it's in. I want to build a culture here where there are no excuses for under performance."
Geez, it's gunna be a long year for the Pennies. i wonder if Cleary expected to walk into such a mess?