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Football factory: The tips, scouts and secrets of Penrith's junior juggernaut

Either side of the Blue Mountains, more than 8000 kids pull on the boots every Saturday morning.

Blacktown to Bathurst and back, Dubbo and Parkes across the range into Doonside and Penrith.

On Sunday night 11 of those same kids will pull on the iconic licorice all-sorts jumper at ANZ Stadium, back on grand final day for the first time in 17 years.

Kurtley Beale and Joseph Suaali slipped through their fingers.

Stephen Crichton and Brian To'o only got the nod because spots 47-50 needed filling for a trial squad.

And Nathan Cleary's first foray in the Panthers rep system was as a 16-year-old reserve hooker. 

But for the past eight years the three men pulling the strings in Penrith's vast juniors system – Jim Jones, Theo Kubica and Tom Anderson – have largely picked the right ones.

With a combined 84 years of experience, this trio of Panthers scouts provide a rare insight into the juniors juggernaut that has spawned Sunday's grand finalists.

Welcome to the football factory.

Penrith junior league selector Tom Anderson, 74, chairman of selectors Theo Kubica, 71, and Panthers recruitment officer Jim Jones, 64.
Penrith junior league selector Tom Anderson, 74, chairman of selectors Theo Kubica, 71, and Panthers recruitment officer Jim Jones, 64.

Winning starts Saturday

As Penrith's recruitment officer Jones is the club's longest serving full-time staffer by some margin, with Kubica starting what is now a $2000-a-year role the season after.

"I came onboard the year they won the comp in '91. That's no coincidence," Kubica, five years retired from working as a crane foreman, quips.

For 30 years the chairman of junior league selectors has marshalled the best and brightest from Penrith's catchment into the club's systems.

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Anderson – a former pastry cook and child services worker – and Kubica's deputy, has been involved for 25 years.

Every week during season, a team of 10-12 volunteer selectors will watch anywhere between three and nine games of footy a weekend, from under 12s through to 18s.

Penrith's district rugby league boasts 24 different clubs, with the best part of 3000 players in those age groups.

Teams are placed into divisions with transfer rules aimed at avoiding age-group teams being stacked with representative juniors.

Selectors file their weekly tips and reports to Kubica after what can often be a 9-5 Saturday shift.

He duly updates a mammoth computer database that features every name under the western Sydney sun from the past 20 years – Lewis through Luai, Coote through Cleary.

"I don't know why but I've got tip sheets on file back to 1990," Kubica laughs.

"The computer records go back to 2000. My missus is at me about not throwing anything away.

"There'd be a tip sheet there, probably a few I'd say, with Craig Gower's name on it somewhere in there."

Panthers enjoy 'normal week'

Monthly selection meetings see tip sheets printed out, pored over, debated and dissected in the name of player development.

Trial games to make Penrith's junior rep sides, SG Ball (under 18s) and Harold Matthews (under 16s) squads still play their part.

But under the scouting system first put in place around 2003 by then-CEO Mick Leary, every player the club wants to keep track of is watched by someone in the know every two or three weeks.

"We found this more intensive scouting system better than the trials," Kubica explains.

"Trials you can pick a kid or brush them off one good or bad game.

"They can be played out of position, you'd get whinging about someone not getting a fair run.

"This way we know how many times we've seen every kid and every team in our system play. We know who tipped who when and why.

"And best of all, we've got more of an idea of who these kids are as people."

The big-game players who could decide the grand final

Anderson adds: "We've got a few selectors who are teachers at the local schools, and that plays a big part in that aspect.

"They know these kids because they see them all day at school.

"They help with their attitudes, know what's going on with them, it's another insight we wouldn't get otherwise."

'We do miss some of course'

If the scouting system is the dragnet, those trial games are still worth dropping a line in.

"We might never have picked up Brian To'o or Mitch Kenny without trials," Anderson says.

"Those two fellas were ranked 47 and 59th from memory in the ratings system we had.

"Their trial form did see them end up making our train-on squads and they've gone from there.

"Stephen Crichton was another fella that didn't stand out that much."

Maybe because when SG Ball squad trials were announced on Facebook, Crichton missed them on account of not having an account.

Development squad coach Ben Harden was convinced the lanky kid from St Clair's was worth a punt, with Kubica and Jones backing him in.

"We pick 50 for the SG Ball, we only had 47 at the point," Jones laughs.

"'Throw the big kid in from St Clairs'.

"It's Stephen bloody Crichton."

Kubica can't help himself.

"Sorry, who picked him?"

"Yeah but who didn't want to pick Nathan Cleary?" Jones retorts.

Nathan Cleary in the under-20s NYC in 2015.
Nathan Cleary in the under-20s NYC in 2015. ©NRL Photos

"Well I picked him eventually and I'm still here aren't I?"

Seriously Theo?

"Right through juniors I think it's fair to say, Jarome was always rated in front of Nathan," Kubica says.

"First two or three games of SG Ball, Nathan was our reserve hooker.

"He was good enough to make the 20, but not the 17. But by the end of the season we moved Jarome from halfback to make way for him.

"We do miss some of course. Joseph Suaalii, we certainly knew who he was.

"We picked him but union picked him too, and you can't keep all of them. Kurtley Beale was another one that went that way."

Jarome Luai in the Panthers' NYC side in 2015.
Jarome Luai in the Panthers' NYC side in 2015. ©NRL Photos

'Built from within': How the west was won

While Kubica's tips and spreadsheets system has existed in various forms for the past two decades, by 2012 Penrith's 25-man NRL squad boasted just five home-grown members.

Jones was trudging up and down the eastern seaboard and across the Tasman, scrapping for the hottest rugby league talent with scouts from 15 NRL rivals.

"I was in New Zealand one time crowing when I called back to the club," Jones laughs.

"'I've got a champion fullback. Tuivasa-Sheck is the name'... already signed with the Roosters? F--- me, I'm going home'."

When Phil Gould returned to a club not so much on its knees, but requiring full-blown ACL reconstructions to boot, a new mantra was needed.

Gould, Jones and Matt Cameron – now Penrith's general manager – cast their eyes around the district and landed on 'built from within' to form the club's foundations.

Then they looked across the Great Dividing Range.

To bush footy heartland from Dubbo to Forbes and Parkes, then back to the mountains, where Penrith ranks as their closest NRL club.

Not that you would've known.

"Camo and I, when we first went out to Bathurst we took a straw poll of all the kids," Jones says.

"'Right, who follows the Panthers? One bloke stood up. One. Out of about 80. Another kid stood up and then sat back down because they were all looking at him.

"They would've ranged from 13 years old to 16, the exact age group we were looking at.

"So we invested. We came back with Penrith gear, we promoted it, we ran coaching clinics regularly, got these kids into our Bathurst game every year.

"We set up academies with St Johns (Dubbo) and Redbend (Forbes). Slowly but surely we started to make a mark."

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Recent graduates from Penrith's investment in the western corridor include Wayde Egan (Lithgow), Kaide Ellis and Matt Burton (Dubbo), Liam Martin (Temora), Brent Naden (Wellington), Billy Burns (Parkes) and Charlie Staines (Forbes).

Dubbo's Isaah Yeo pre-dates all of them, and was proof the Panthers were on the right track when he first landed at the club.

Wary of uprooting 15 and 16-year-old country kids for an NRL crack that is still only just on the horizon, players are encouraged to stay at home, finish school, and make their Sydney move only when ready.

One of Gould's first acts when he returned in 2011 was the famed Panther House purchase at Cranebrook, a sprawling five-bedroom, two-hectare site for country and Kiwi kids to live when they did arrive at the club.

First run by former New Zealand international Mark Horo, then ex-player Shane Elford and his wife Alannah, the property has housed most every country recruit to come through Penrith's ranks.

Regular training, chores, curfews, and no girls, drugs or alcohol have kept them on the straight and narrow.

"Isaah Yeo's mum, Amy, that's what got her on board," Jones says.

"She didn't care about the footy pitch, wasn't interested in the slightest what we would do for him footy-wise.

"All she wanted to know was 'where's he going to live? Is he going to get into trouble?'

"She walks through the front door and gets offered a cup of tea by someone. 'Nope no need. We're in, let's go sign the contract'."

Attitudes and entitlement

When Ivan Cleary arrived back at Penrith in 2019, he was surprised at the subtle culture shift since his exit three years earlier.

Simple elements from Penrith's Harold Matthews and SG Ball programs – like players carrying gear to and from the bus – weren't repeated at NRL level.

The sex-tape scandal then blew the roof right off their $20 million Panthers Academy, prompting navel-gazing right through the organisation.

"You do wonder, you question your judgement and ideas when it's not going well," Anderson says.

"And you do see it, kids training with bad attitudes or they're coming into the system with entitlement.

"But the good ones almost always will last and prove themselves as that.

"There's a no dickhead policy sure, it's unofficial but it's there.

"And it comes back to monitoring the kids for an extended period. You get to know them, we've already trained them and seen their attitude by the time they come in."

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Jones has seen it all and then some over the years.

"But only two players who could through on ability alone – Greg Alexander and Brad Fittler," he says.

Picking them is one thing, sticking with them the next.

Investments are made in those that prove they deserve them, with scholarships, physio and medical coverage provided to varying degrees before contracts enter the fray.

Training up a cavalcade of junior coaches, a job led by Ben Harden and Jim's son Sam Jones, also ensures young players are taught habits and techniques that will hold them in good stead.

Penrith are with their players all the way.

To the point a teenaged Moses Leota was lined up for a job detailing cars instead of concreting, just so the NSW Origin hopeful could get to training on time, not covered in concrete.

Cleary: The big stage won't worry Nathan

But at some point in Penrith's system, it's on the player.

The good ones don't just survive. They thrive.

"Dylan Edwards is the best example," Jones says.

"He struggled to start with, couldn't get much of a run, but he kept going.

"I remember a pre-season training session under Anthony Griffin, they were all running 400s and Dylan was first up against Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, a real athlete and runner.

"Dylan dusted him.

"Then Dyl goes up against Waqa Blake a few minutes later.

"Took off and dusts him too. These two blokes are on the ground absolutely cactus.

"Dylan keeps running and does the same thing to two or three more blokes, they just couldn't match the kid's motor.

"You reward effort, and that's why we kept persisting with him." 

Fullback face-off: Edwards, Papenhuzyen set to ignite decider

Penrith's persistence with their own patch has paid off.

Just as the club's 1991 and 2003 titles were driven by a core of home grown talent, so too is the 2020 vintage that takes on Melbourne.

The football factory is firing once more.

Panther products

Dylan Edwards

Junior club: Bellingen Dorrigo Magpies

NRL debut: 2016

Brent Naden

Junior club: Wellington Cowboys

NRL debut: 2019

Stephen Crichton

Junior club: St Clair Comets

NRL debut: 2019

Brian To'o

Junior club: St Marys

NRL debut: 2019

Jarome Luai

Junior club: St Marys

NRL debut: 2018

Nathan Cleary

Junior club: Brothers Penrith

NRL debut: 2016

James Fisher-Harris

Junior club: Whangarei Marist Brothers

NRL debut: 2016

Liam Martin

Junior club: Temora Dragons

NRL debut: 2019

Isaah Yeo

Junior club: St Johns Dubbo

NRL debut: 2014

Tyrone May

Junior club: Minchinbury Jets

NRL debut: 2017

Moses Leota

Junior club: St Marys

NRL debut: 2016

Mitch Kenny

Junior club: Windsor Wolves

NRL debut: 2019

Matt Burton

Junior club: St Johns Dubbo, Dubbo CYMS

NRL debut: 2019

Spencer Leniu

Junior club: Minchinbury Jets

NRL debut: 2019