Frank Pritchard has seen his dream of playing in the Telstra Premiership finals crushed time and again and says the key to ending the drought starts with the trial against the Cowboys this Saturday.
The 25-year-old has never played in a finals game and labeled the trial in Cairns a crucial stepping stone to launch Penrith into the critical opening rounds of the NRL competition.
As a rookie Pritchard watched from the sidelines in 2003 when the Panthers last won the Premiership and he again missed the finals in 2004 when he broke his ankle in Round 26.
The Panthers have since gone four seasons without making it past the regular season and Pritchard has warned his team of the importance of a good trial to get confidence and momentum going into a daunting start to the season.
The Panthers’ intimidating start includes travelling away to the top three teams in the opening five weeks – the Sharks in Round 1, reigning Premiers Manly Sea Eagles in Round 3 and Grand Finalists Melbourne Storm in Round 5.
“Round 1 coming up against the Sharks, they are always going to be tough,” Pritchard said.
“That is why we really need to have a good game against the Cowboys, just to get our combinations going and make sure we are firing come that first week.
“A good start to the season is so important and if we can win a couple of those early tough rounds, it will really set us up.”
In 2008, the boys from the foot of the mountains unearthed a host of young stars with Lachlan Coote, Masada Iosefa and Wade Graham all making an impression in the NRL.
Pritchard says the mix of exciting youth and experience is critical to the Panthers’ finals chances this year.
“There are a lot of young blokes coming through and they are buzzing with a lot of enthusiasm and I think that is what gives me a kick-start every day,” Pritchard said.
“It is why I love playing for the Panthers.
“I think I have to stand up a little bit and I have to take control. I’m not that young fella I used to be. Matt Elliott has asked me to be more controlling around the ruck and around the field.
“Last year we had a bunch of good kids come through with Graham, Coote and Masada.
“They stood up to the challenge and with experience being around Petero [Civoniceva], [Trent] Waterhouse and myself they will spend a lot more time on the field and hopefully their enthusiasm can lift the team this year.”
The Panthers have named a near full-strength squad to play the last hit-out before the season proper.
Click here to watch a video profile of Frank Pritchard
Panthers team to play Cowboys at Barlow Park, Saturday, February 28 - 7.30pm Kick off