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An unprecedented bond between the Panthers players is the key to their mid-season surge up the table and into the top eight, according to exciting Penrith winger James Roberts.
Six wins from their past nine matches have rocketed the Panthers into the playoff cut-off zone as well as premiership reckoning, and the former South Sydney Rabbitoh reckons it’s all to do with a unique ‘brotherhood’ the players have formed at the foot of the mountains.
“The boys have come together a lot and we’re starting to look at each other as brothers and play for each other a lot more,” Roberts, a three-try hero in Penrith’s thumping victory over the Titans in Darwin last week, tells NRL.com.
“At the start with me personally I used to just go to training and go home, but now we do stuff together after training and during training – we’re always around each other and helping each other and telling each other where we need to improve... and it’s working so far.
“It’s just simple little things – getting coffee, lunch, sometimes we go to some of the wakeboard cables out here with a few of the younger boys, even go to the movies.”
One of the form sides in the competition at the moment, it was a very different story for Penrith just eight rounds into the competition. Defeated in five of their opening six clashes, the Panthers have since launched a mid-season revival, conquering the reigning premiers Melbourne (12-10) and thumping the Warriors (62-6) to unveil the start of a reborn and highly competitive side capable of beating anyone in the NRL.
Roberts believes it’s that team unity – as well as a little bit of individual determination – that has the squad performing above expectations. Particularly so for a team written off in premiership calculations at the start of the season after losing a host of established stars including Luke Lewis, Michael Gordon and Michael Jennings – a point that hasn’t been lost on the current brigade.
“There’s a lot of people like myself here who want to prove themselves and, I dunno, sometimes I think we want it more because we haven’t had a piece of it yet,” Roberts says.
“The boys are doing an awesome job and stuff like that [the former stars leaving], when it gets in the paper it makes us want to play a lot harder and work for each other a lot more.”
Last week the Panthers continued their good form with a strong performance against the Gold Coast at TIO Stadium. A 28-point second-half sealed an emphatic 40-18 victory but Roberts, one of several Penrith players currently in or nearing career-best form, believes there’s even more improvement in a team surprising most ‘experts’.
“We had a very good preparation for the game and hadn’t won [many] away games to that point,” Roberts says of their Round 17 win.
“We were all focussed and we all trained hard and did what we could to prepare ourselves to play our best game. It worked.
“There’s a lot of boys getting better and better and like I said coming closer to them there’s a lot of room for improvement but we’re working on it.”
Roberts, who started as a No.1 but has spent nine of his 13 NRL games on the wing, in particular, has shone this season after being cut adrift by the Rabbitohs last year for disciplinary reasons. A 10-game South Sydney player in 2011, Roberts is poised to make just his fourth appearance in Panthers colours. This, like several of his team-mates, is possibly his last chance to show the rugby league world what he has to offer – and he wants to make the most of it and seal a bright future in Sydney’s west.
“I had a good game [against the Titans] but I’ve still got a lot to improve on and I’m still getting used to the wing… but it’s going good,” Roberts says.
“We’ve got a couple of really good young signings who’ll be with us for a couple of years and hopefully I join that at the end of the year. It should be good.”
On Saturday the Panthers travel to Parramatta Stadium to take on the poorly performing Eels. Most teams could be excused for taking Parramatta lightly, a team anchored to the foot of the table – but not Penrith.
“We don’t care what rank [the Eels] are – we just have to stick to the game plan,” Roberts says.
“Every team’s the same to us and they’re going to be tough and if we don’t go there prepared we’re going to get beat. We’ve just got to treat them like they’re Souths.
“Every team’s a tough game. Hopefully we just do the same as we did last week and stick to the game plan and hopefully come away with a win.
“There’s a long way to go – we’re only halfway there – but we’re doing our best and hopefully [our fans will continue to] stick by us.”