Dene Halatau can recount when most members of the Wests Tigers 2005 premiership team made their NRL debuts.
Not just his own, alongside Robbie Farah in the 2003 clash with Manly at Leichhardt Oval. But also those of Liam Fulton, Bryce Gibbs, Chris Heighington, Bronson Harrison, Anthony Laffranchi, Daniel Fitzhenry and a 17-year-old Benji Marshall, who is now the oldest player in the NRL.
“All of us are still good mates,” Halatau said. “Obviously the premiership binds you for life, as anyone who has won one would say, but we probably valued it more for the fact that so many of us had come through together in 2003 and 2004.
“It rings true that if you get a high number of players coming through your juniors or debuting at your club you are going to have some success at the top level. The Panthers are probably the best example at the moment."
The majority of the Wests Tigers side which beat North Queensland in the 2005 grand final had made their NRL debut with the club and it is a common theme among premiership winning teams.
Besides the 2016 Cronulla Sharks and the 1999 Melbourne Storm, whose roster had been mostly drafted from the defunct Perth Reds and Hunter Mariners, every team to taste grand final glory in the NRL era has been dominated by players whose careers began at the club.
“Premierships are years in the making,” former Melbourne second-rower Ryan Hoffman said. “To get that cohesion and camaraderie takes years of work and being together.
“A lot of those teams have less off-field problems as well, because players understand what the club is about and what their expectations are.”
Hoffman was one of 11 players in the Storm teams that won the 2007 and 2009 grand finals who debuted at the club, along with Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk.
He also played in the 2012 premiership-winning team that boasted 10 players whose first NRL appearance was in a purple jersey, while 14 members of the Melbourne 2017 team debuted for the club.
The Storm also had 12 players in the team that beat Penrith in last year’s grand final whose NRL debuts were with Melbourne, while the Panthers had 12.
It’s a recipe for success that leading commentator and former Parramatta great Peter Sterling, who played halfback in the Eels’ 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1986 premiership winning teams, has regularly espoused on Channel 9 this season.
“That is how you build a club,” Sterling said. “Penrith are the prime example. So many of those players began their first-grade careers at the Penrith club.
“Look at Canberra. There are green shoots that they are bringing through. They may not play finals this season but the players who are coming through are developing that club and what it means to the players.”
Bred, not bought
The rise of the Panthers in the last two seasons has been a compelling argument for clubs to focus on development over recruitment.
“Bred, not bought” was a slogan that featured on banners at Canterbury games when the Bulldogs won their last premiership in 2004, with 12 members of the grand final team having debuted with the club.
They included Hazem El Masri, Willie Mason, Sonny Bill Williams and Johnathan Thurston, while Tony Grimaldi had played one match for the Dragons before joining Canterbury and Willie Tonga had played eight matches for Parramatta.
The Canterbury team that beat the Tigers 38-0 last Sunday contained eight players who made their NRL debut for the Belmore club but new Bulldogs GM of football Phil Gould has plans to change that, as he did at Penrith.
The Panthers are set to field 12 players who began their NRL careers at Penrith in the team to play South Sydney on Saturday – the most of the eight finals teams.
Sydney Roosters, who have blooded eight rookies this season after being hit hard by injuries, and Manly are both expected to have 11 members of their finals squads who debuted in their colours, while the Storm are likely to have 10 and South Sydney nine.
In addition, the Roosters have three players – Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (6 games), Sio Siua Taukeiaho (1) and Adam Keighran (9) – who have played less than 10 matches elsewhere, as has Rabbitohs hooker Damien Cook (9) and Melbourne’s Jahrome Hughes (2) and Josh Addo-Carr (9).
Manly have four players who played less than 10 matches for a rival club – Jason Saab (7), Morgan Harper (2), Lachlan Croker (1) and Toafofoa Sipley (2).
Sea Eagles captain Daly Cherry-Evans said the team boasted a good mix of experience and youth.
“What we thought was going to be our best side at the start of the year has dramatically changed,” Cherry-Evans said.
“We found a few young fellas who have taken their opportunity with both hands and haven't given it back. We have a lot of belief here and are a tight bunch.”
Sharing a unique bond
Cherry-Evans was one of 10 Manly players to have made their debuts at the club the last time Des Hasler led the Sea Eagles to premiership success in 2011 – a number matched by the Roosters team that beat them in the 2013 grand final.
The Michael Maguire-coached team which ended the Rabbitohs' 43-year premiership drought in 2014 featured 14 players who had made their debut in myrtle and cardinal, with only Greg Inglis, Ben Te’o and Lote Tuqiri having played their first NRL match for a rival club.
The 2006 Broncos and 2017 Storm premiership teams also boasted 14 players whose NRL careers began at those clubs, with the three other members of the Brisbane team - Shane Perry, Ben Hannant and Casey McGuire - having played a combined 11 matches elsewhere.
Matt Gidley, Andrew Johns, Danny Buderus, Robbie O’Davis and Steve Simpson were among 12 members of the 2001 Newcastle team which triumphed over Parramatta in the grand final who made their debuts for the Knights.
Looking back at the 2014 grand final
“If you play with someone for a long time you are going to have better relationships off the field and better combinations on the field,” said Hoffman, who was a member of Melbourne’s 2007, 2009 and 2012 grand final-winning teams.
“Without a doubt you get that bond and you know that everyone is working towards that same goal because they have been doing it with you.
“I was with Wigan for one year and we won the Challenge Cup. That was a fantastic feeling and it wasn’t diminished by the fact I was only there for one year, but in terms of sustained success I certainly feel that being together over a long period helps.”
Halatau said players often develop a loyalty to the club where they made their debut, as he did, despite playing most of his juniors at Parramatta.
“The Tigers gave me a chance and I was still only 16, so I played so much footy as a teenager at Leichhardt Oval that it became a place that was special to me.” Halatau said.
“With that being a really important place in the Tigers history I feel that helped bind me to the club a bit more and I think it means more when you have got that attachment as a junior.
“Me and Robbie still reflect on the day we made our first-grade debuts together and seeing guys like Bryce and Liam debut was great because I went to school with both of those guys.
A look back at the 2005 Grand Final
“To be a part of a 17-year-old kid’s debut when Benji came down from Keebra Park High was awesome and it was special to get Brett Hodgson back from Parramatta in 2004 because he was a Wests junior and was so respected in the Campbelltown-Macarthur area.
“I think if you can have players who can come through the system at the club, debut at the club and win a premiership at the club or have success at the club I think it strengthens the junior base and all flows on."
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.
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