Ten years ago something special swept across the west of Sydney, when the Penrith Panthers claimed their second premiership with an 18-6 victory over the star-studded Sydney Roosters. The season, and the success, typified everything people from western Sydney love about rugby league and themselves. It was won by the little guy, the battler, who overcame the odds and knocked off the pretty boys from the east of Sydney.
With so many local players, and young emerging players, in the squad, it was supposed to be the beginning of an era at Penrith. They had an average age of just 24, only two players over the age of 30, and seven either 22 or younger. But after backing up that premiership with a preliminary final in 2004, falling to eventual premiers Canterbury, the Panthers started to drop.
Since 2004, they haven’t won a finals game, visiting the post-season just once in 2010, and have won a wooden spoon (2007). They have been seen by so many as the perennial ‘also-rans’, a club with so much potential, so many juniors, but no way of harnessing them. Surprisingly, at least considering that record, they’ve had just two changes of coach since that premiership with Matthew Elliott and then Ivan Cleary taking the reigns, both with moderate success.
While much has been written of their recruitment and retention strategy, the majority of it critical, you can’t really doubt the results that Cleary has delivered this season. With a roster many tipped to be receiving silverware of the wooden complexion, they currently sit in seventh position despite an injury list topped probably only by the Tigers.
But it’s that injury list which has given opportunities to youngsters, and the success of these youngsters has actually forced the game’s administrators into re-thinking the second-tier salary cap. It’s players like Matt Moylan, Isaac John, James Roberts and Matt Robinson, all of whom were probably at long-odds to get a shot at the top grade in 2013, but are now driving their pursuit of finals football.
Some commentators have put their rise up the ladder down to an unfair Origin period, where teams without representation make their move. That may be a factor, but it doesn’t explain the thrashings of the Warriors and Eels at home, or the victory over a full-strength Melbourne Storm team either.
It’s also been done in such a competitive environment, with both AFL and football encroaching on their territory in Sydney’s greater west. The success of Penrith, and their neighbouring teams Wests Tigers, Parramatta Eels and Canterbury Bulldogs, is vitally important to the growth of what has long been rugby league’s stronghold, as will be the centre of excellence recently announced by the club.
So ten long, tough, years on from that famous grand final victory, it could be the watershed moment for rugby league in the west. It’s long been said that if the Rabbitohs are doing well, then rugby league is doing well, but with western Sydney growing at such a rate, a powerhouse club in the area could strengthen the foothold on the eastern seaboard. After a decade of treading water, 2013 could be the year the Panthers become that powerhouse.
Jim Beam Smooth Move of the Week
It hasn’t taken long for Anthony Milford’s talent to shine through in the NRL. In his first run-on game for the Raiders, Milford sealed an important home victory with footwork reminiscent of a young Benji Marshall. Getting the ball first off the scrumbase, Milford hit the ball at speed, before putting a subtle in-and-away on Marshall’s former team-mate Robert Lui, getting slightly on his outside and burning him, and then the cover defence, for speed to cross in the dying minutes.