Panthers prodigies unleashed on Nines
They have been the dominant force in the Holden Cup for the past two years, and now some of Penrith's best juniors are set to be unleashed on the Auckland Nines.
The Panthers are coming off back-to-back minor premierships in the NYC, with the mountain men going all the way in 2015 before giving up a huge half-time lead to fall in heartbreaking circumstances to the Roosters in last year's grand final.
Eight members of the premiership-winning side have been chosen in Penrith's Downer Auckland Nines squad, including NYC skipper Oliver Clark who paid tribute to the incredible efforts of his teammates over the past 24 months.
"A big majority of us came together as 15 or 16-year-old playing Harold Matts," Clark told NRL.com at the Auckland Nines fan day.
"We played together right through until the under-20s where we finally won a comp in 2015. You spend so much time with each other every week that I think we will definitely be mates for life.
"It's the most humbling experience to be captain of such a strong bunch of boys. It's definitely the proudest achievement of my career so far.
"A lot of us are going to get the opportunity to play together in reserve grade, we'll do our time there and then hopefully we can graduate into first grade."
According to Clark, the backbone behind Penrith's dominance wasn't just based on talent and desire. Instead, it came down to the players being able to trust the person next to them to make the right decision in attack and defence.
It's that connection that has Clark confident that this group of players won't just be a team that won the comp; they'll be mates for life.
"You just know who's going to turn up for you, and over the years it's weened out the guys who don't. When we get to gameday I know that everybody next to me is going to turn up and look out for me, and they know that I'd do exactly the same for them," he said.
"We're such good mates and we've been together for so long that we have an understanding of what everyone is going to do before it's even happened.
"It's good for us boys to get a taste of the NRL against some quality players here in Auckland."
Clark was restricted to just nine games in the NYC last season but still managed to earn a starting spot in the Holden Cup Team of the Year.
The Quakers Hill junior said he would happily bide his time in reserve grade this season but acknowledged that making his NRL debut was his number one goal for 2017.
According to Clark, the best way to make that happen was to learn from his Panthers teammates who have proven themselves against elite competition.
"James Tamou is the obvious one given he's played for NSW and Australia. He's led from the front at training and he's taken on a mentoring role for the younger forwards in our team.
"We've got a very strong roster for 2017 so I can only control what I can control. If I take care of my performances and outdo some of the guys in the team then hopefully I can make my NRL debut."