By Nicholas Janzen
At first it was labelled part of Phil Gould’s five-year master plan to rebuild rugby league at the foot of the Blue Mountains, but now the Panthers’ players insist the 2013 season can, in fact, develop into one of genuine success.
After two years in the finals wilderness and following the departures of Michael Gordon, Luke Lewis and Michael Jennings, few predicted Penrith would feature in this season’s playoffs – but, with just seven matches remaining in the regular season, Ivan Cleary’s men will find themselves back in the top eight if they beat Cronulla at Remondis Stadium on Sunday.
According to veteran forward Clint Newton, it is the doubters who’ve driven his team to the verge of doing something few expected – including Penrith’s general manager Phil Gould who labelled it “a rebuilding phase”.
“Obviously rebuilding isn’t a word as a player I like to hear a lot of because it [feels like] people aren’t giving you a chance,” Newton, who revealed last week he is looking for an NRL team for 2014, tells NRL.com.
“But I totally understand what Phil’s trying to do – it’s about not necessarily rebuilding but restructuring the side and along with a new coach in Ivan.
“There have been some difficult times in the past 18 months but all the parties are in a better place after some of the stuff that went on.
“It was the so-called expert judges who put us at the bottom of the table (at the start of the season) and I never read too much into that because last year was a perfect example.
“Everyone said the premiership favourites were the Tigers… and they never made the semis. I think people are very quick to judge a roster… but they don’t take into consideration how hard that group might work. We’re travelling okay but we’re still not where we’d like to be. But we’ve certainly made some good improvements.”
Currently sitting in ninth position on the competition ladder with 20 points, a win against the Sharks this weekend would slingshot Penrith into the top eight – a remarkable achievement for an injury-ravaged side that registered one-and-five from their opening six rounds.
“I think we deserve to be where we are – you can’t afford to lose five in a row at the start of the season and expect to be in the top four – but as we’ve always maintained you’ll finish where you deserve to finish,” Newton says.
“If we keep working hard and continue to hit our targets weekly and as individuals then we’ll find ourselves in hopefully a good position at the back-end of the season. If we don’t, that responsibility falls on our shoulders and we’ve only got ourselves to blame.
“Any talk of a title is a fair way off at the moment – we’ve still got to be more consistent to be considered semi-final contenders.”
Newton in particular feels it is his responsibility to help lead a young Panthers side in their defining period of the season. Without the likes of the experienced and injured Lachlan Coote, Sam McKendry and Nigel Plum, the former Newcastle and Melbourne forward believes it’s his job to lead way for his inexperienced and success-starved team. And he views experience as the difference in the big games, like those that roll around when September comes.
“I certainly see myself as experienced – I’m certainly not someone who’s going to talk myself up… but what I do bring is plenty of experience and I’ve played in all types of games both here and in the UK,” Newton, a grand final winner with the Storm in 2007 who played with Hull KR from 2008-2011, says.
“I try to draw on that especially when everyone keeps telling you ‘You’re too old’ or ‘Once you get to 30 you’re not as good anymore’… You just can’t buy [experience]. You can’t put an old head on young shoulders.”
This Sunday, Penrith need all the experience and poise they can muster when they travel to Cronulla. Some believe the Sharks’ strong roster, on the back of a 40-0 hiding against the Roosters and in the wake of recent ASADA developments, will be distracted. Not Newton.
“They’ve had distractions all year so I think it’s a credit to them they’re sitting onthe table where they are,” he says of the seventh-placed Sharks.
“They’re a good-quality rugby league side with plenty of talent and they’re obviously well coached, too. I’m certainly not going into the game looking at [last week’s] score line – that’s definitely not a true indication of the side that we’ll be playing on Sunday.”
The match could prove one of Newton’s last in Panthers colours, after he revealed this would be his final season at the foot of the mountains.
“There’s certainly no animosity from my side to the Penrith club because you’ve got to look at this like a business and I’m very lucky to do what I do,” says Newton, who turned 32 last week.
“It’s been exceptionally positive playing out here in western Sydney – there are some great people out here and… I’ve got nothing but good words to say about this area and the people in it. It’s been a pleasure to play in front of them.
“But football is a passion of mine and I’m happiest when I’m helping people, when I’m around footy and playing, and whenever I can still compete and can still wake up in the morning wanting to go to training, train hard and compete… I’ll definitely be playing on, it’s just a matter of which club.
“I probably get a little bit frustrated when people say that you’ve got to finish on top. For me, finishing on top would mean making a contribution to a club, helping a club be successful, be it in first grade or playing a mentoring role in the NSW Cup. I’m not too proud to play in the NSW Cup if my form warrants it.”