Written by John Davidson
Too young, too in-experienced – that has been the knock on the Panthers this year.
Their impressive season, just one loss all year, has them in the NRL grand final. There they will face the very experienced, the talented, the very successful Melbourne Storm. The undisputed benchmark of the competition for the past 13 seasons.
Some will say Penrith can’t beat the Storm on Sunday. That the Storm have too many big-name players, too many stars, too many individuals who have won grand finals before and Origins and Test matches, and know exactly what to do and how to handle on these huge occasions.
The Cameron Smiths, Cameron Munsters, Jesse Bromwichs, Josh Addo-Carrs, Felise Kaufusis and Dale Funnicanes etc etc, as well as the master coach Craig Bellamy controlling it all.
Some will say that the Chocolate Soldiers will wilt under the GF pressure.
But that’s ignoring the immense production line at the foot of the mountains, the special bond that has developed over many years and their lower-grade feats.
The vast majority of the Panthers’ NRL squad are either local juniors, players who were born and grew up in the area, or came through the club’s Harold Matthews, SG Ball, Under-20s and NSW Cup teams. Who feel a strong connection to Penrith, to their teammates, and who have tasted victory in important matches on their way up into first-grade.
In 2013 the Panthers won the Under-20 grand final, beating the Warriors. Isaah Yeo was a member of that team.
The following year Penrith won the NSW Cup grand final, smashing the Knights. Yeo also played in that grand final.
In 2015 the club won another Under-20 grand final, defeating Manly. In that team was Brent Naden, Dylan Edwards, Tyrone May, Jarome Luai, Moses Leota and James Fisher-Harris.
Cam Ciraldo discusses the team’s chemistry, how they’ll handle #NRLGF pressure and the challenge posed by the Storm.
— Penrith Panthers (@PenrithPanthers) October 19, 2020
The following year the Panthers made another Under-20 grand final, this time losing to the Roosters. In that side was Edwards, May and Liam Martin.
In 2017 the club won another reserve grand final. In that XVII was Luai, Viliame Kikau, Martin and Jack Hetherington.
It shows that for years and years Penrith have building towards this epic NRL campaign and how close this group of players really are. It displays the value and power of development, of investing and producing young talent. There is also a number of Penrith products catching the eye at other clubs, from Regan Campbell Gillard at Parramatta to Tyrone Peachey at the Gold Coast.
Of the XVII who beat Souths on Saturday seven are from the suburbs of St Clair, Mout Druitt and St Mary’s. Four others are from nearby country NSW – Naden, Yeo, Edwards and Martin – but joined the Panthers as teenagers, came through their system and understand their culture.
Then there’s the likes of Fisher-Harris and Nathan Cleary who came from New Zealand as children to Penrith, who are also club products. Three of the mountain men’s most experienced players – James Tamou (who won a grand final with the Cowboys in 2015), Api Korisau (who won a grand final with Souths in 2014) and Zane Tetevano (who won a grand final with the Roosters in 2014) – were recruited from elsewhere.
The Panthers’ rise has been built on the blood, sweat and tears of local juniors, local talent and local stock.
In the club’s history the only two times Penrith has ever won grand finals has been exactly the same – based around local cattle.
In 1991 it was the likes of Brad Fittler, Greg Alexander, Mark Geyer and John Cartwright, also with a local as coach in Phil Gould.
In 2003 it was Luke Lewis, Luke Rooney, Craig Gower, Tony Puletua, Trent Waterhouse, Luke Swain and others.
2020 could see history repeating itself.