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Royce's voice resonates: Simmons could inspire Penrith to another title

It was the summer of pre-season in 2021 and Penrith players had returned to training after Christmas, having narrowly missed out on a third premiership three months earlier.

Panthers coach Ivan Cleary lined up former club captain and 1991 premiership-winner Royce Simmons for a chat with the players. 

It was a squad with few changes but among those no longer at the club were two senior leaders, James Tamou and Josh Mansour.

The players had just watched where it all went wrong against Melbourne in the 2020 decider, with a 26-0 deficit after 45 minutes – more than enough viewing for everyone involved. 

Simmons, who captained the Panthers to grand final defeat in 1990, understood how they were feeling.

"I just spoke to them about it being a team commitment for the year, if they really wanted to make amends for the loss," Simmons says.

Premiership-winning Panther Royce Simmons in 1991.
Premiership-winning Panther Royce Simmons in 1991. ©NRL Photos

"To achieve winning a grand final you need every person in your establishment doing their job every week, every game and every situation from the moment pre-season begins.

"That feels like a long time ago now. They've dealt with it. They were very disappointed with last year. The hurt is still in the back of their minds but they've just got on with life.

"That's what they're like, these boys, they enjoy what they do and have looked forward to their next opportunity.

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"Luckily enough the next opportunity has come 12 months later."

Simmons knows all about taking a second chance when it comes calling.

He finished his career with a maiden premiership against Canberra in 1991, but not without going through the pain of grand final defeat 12 months earlier.

Panthers v Rabbitohs - Grand final

Three decades on, the stars are aligning for the current crop to replicate the same feat.

Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai said Simmons's address had stuck with the players throughout the year.

"Royce is a big part of this club and had a talk to us before the season started and what the jersey means to him and how much pride he played with back in the day," Luai said.

"He just spoke about getting up for every game. We're a proud club and a lot of us have come through the grades so history means a lot to us and how the club came through.

"It was pretty cool to see the resemblance back then to now. They were a young side as well."

'Celebrated before we won'

Former Panthers enforcer Mark Geyer can remember the street parades and civic reception that took place for the team in 1990 after they beat Canberra to advance to their first NSWRL grand final.

"The town went absolutely mad for two weeks and we got caught up in it," Geyer said.

"We hadn't achieved anything yet but to the fans, we were the success story. We didn't think about the game until we played it and weren't ready for the week that was."

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The Raiders were forced to play off in a preliminary final against Brisbane, where they racked up a 32-4 scoreline to set up another date with the Panthers in the decider.

Meanwhile, in the streets of Penrith, the party continued.

"It was a shock for everyone to see Penrith in a grand final, we hadn't had a lot of success," former Panthers forward John Cartwright says.

"To get there just generated this huge week of celebrations and we weren't great at keeping a lid on it.

"It's why they always talk about how you handle the week because it's easy to get caught up in all the fanfare.

"It made us grow up a little bit. We didn't prepare as well as we should've."

Match Highlights: Panthers v Raiders

Grown men do cry

Geyer, having grown up in some of the tougher areas in Sydney's western suburbs, wasn't one for tears.

But being on the wrong end of grand final defeat on the afternoon of September 23, 1990, got to him, more than he knew it could.

Canberra bounced back from an upset loss to the Panthers a fortnight earlier to run home 18-14 winners and claim back-to-back premierships in the decider.

"As a young fella I used to watch all grand finals and you'd see players on the ground crying and think, 'C'mon, it's only a game!'" he says.

"But then in 1990, I couldn't turn the taps off. I thought, 'What's this?' I was bawling my eyes out and couldn't work out why.

"All the build of the week just came flooding in. You don't realise the magnitude of it until later.

"I've never watched a replay of the game, I can't bring myself to watch it."

For Simmons, he feared it might've been the one and only chance of his career to achieve something special with the club before retirement.

I was bawling my eyes out and couldn't work out why.

Mark Geyer on the 1990 grand final

"We had so much respect for the Raiders, not only playing against them but look at their side," Simmons said.

"They had Mal Meninga, Bradley Clyde and I was playing against Steve Walters who was an outstanding player.

"You go through the list … Ricky Stuart, Laurie Daley, Garry Belcher. Where do you stop?

"You learn from losing a grand final, you learn how much it hurts you and I think until you lose a grand final you don't realise how much pain or disappointment you go through."

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Return to pre-season

Panthers club legend Greg Alexander could sense a different mood when the squad returned to training in the pre-season of 1991.

It was backed up by Geyer and Cartwright, who said the motivation went to a new level as they entered another season of part-time training.

The trio all shared the captaincy duties throughout the year before Alexander led the side in the finals series.

"We played that 1990 grand final like we'd already accomplished something," Alexander said.

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"But it was all business in '91, right from the start and there was no excitement about making the grand final. It was just like, right, there's another game to go."

Whatever the club and town did in 1990 was also reversed.

It was one of the more timid build-ups to a grand final.

Royce Simmons and Prime Minister Bob Hawke after the 1991 grand final.
Royce Simmons and Prime Minister Bob Hawke after the 1991 grand final. ©NRL Photos

"We were a different team, we changed our jerseys and playing the same team again we wanted some revenge," Geyer said.

"Once we made the preliminary final we bunkered down for two weeks and trained our arses off.

"It was more a tale of 'let's get down to business'."

Rewriting the wrong

Moments before the Panthers took the field for their second attempt at a maiden premiership, Simmons addressed the team in the final game of his career.

The same way he addressed Ivan Cleary's side in January.

"He said, 'Boys, I don't want to end this way with another loss, it will be with me forever'," Geyer said.

"Every player who has played in a grand final and won one has a great story but every player who has lost one has an even greater tale of woes.

"You lament so many things of what you could've done because there are no tomorrows.

"He didn't want to carry two grand final losses in a row for the rest of his life."

When asked about the pre-game speech, Simmons reflected why he chose those words.

Panthers forward John Cartwright hits it up against the Raiders in 1991.
Panthers forward John Cartwright hits it up against the Raiders in 1991. ©NRL Photos

"It's what you play footy for your whole life," he said.

"The grand final is not just about that year, for most, it's their whole career. You may only get one chance. You work hard to get graded and then you have to stay and keep working hard.

"There are a lot better players than me that never won grand finals so you've got to take your opportunities.

"Not too many people get to play in three or four, they're very limited. We didn't capitalise the first time and I didn't want it to happen again, not just for me but everyone."

Match Highlights: Panthers v Raiders

Geyer's tale of his grand final experience in the 1991 decider differs from the others.

He was sin-binned by Bill Harrigan in the second half for calling the touch judge close by a "cheat" after a no-try was ruled against his side.

He thought it would cost the Panthers the game with 25 minutes left on the clock.

"I thought Billy might've sent me off instead so when he said to only go for 10 I thought 'that isn't so bad', but it dragged on forever," Geyer said.

"Looking back on the replay, I marvelled at the way the other forwards just bashed Canberra and didn't let them out of their half.

The Penrith players soak up the win in the SFS sheds.
The Penrith players soak up the win in the SFS sheds. ©NRL Photos

"We got a spring in our step. They did well to keep us out for as long as they did."

A field goal to Alexander put the Panthers ahead 13-12 before Simmons crossed for his second of the afternoon to seal a memorable grand final win.

"When Royce scored that second try I screamed so loud I cracked my larynx," Geyer said.

"I couldn't speak properly for weeks. It's pure euphoria. This game can make you go from feeling so low to feeling on top of the world."

Cartwright described the second half of their game as "absolutely perfect".

"We didn't make an error, hardly conceded a point and didn't miss a tackle," he said.

"You don't play like that unless you've prepared by the minute. We were excellent all year and the games we did lose throughout the year Gus [coach Phil Gould] didn't seem too bothered.

"He timed our run into the grand final perfectly."

Repeat on the cards

Club greats like Simmons and Alexander have spent time at the Panthers in more recent times to help usher through the next crop of talent in Sydney's west.

Geyer has recently opened a gym in the heart of Penrith and Cartwright was a Broncos assistant coach this year who is torn on the decider given his son Jed is in the Rabbitohs' 21-man grand final squad.

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Other former Panthers from the 1991 squad have watched Penrith's progression from afar, while Phil Gould has been credited with where the club is placed after his services as general manager.

"They just find themselves in a circumstance we were in 30 years ago," Alexander said.

"The motivation to win one after losing a grand final … there is no greater disappointment in the game than losing one.

"What they experienced last year would help them through the week but I don't know what it means in terms of the result.

"We learned that if you don't make it count you might not get another chance."

Cleary to update kicking plan for Souths re-match

Geyer said seeing Nathan Cleary's face as Melbourne lifted the trophy last year still gave him nightmares.

"They say you've got to lose one to win one but I don't know if that's true or not, I just think you learn so much from losing one that you don't make the same mistakes again," Geyer said.

"Last year I thought they were like deers in the spotlight. Melbourne had been there before and came out breathing fire. We had no fire extinguisher to put it out.

"Once you get caught behind like Penrith did last year it's very hard to make it back."

Cartwright, who is based in Brisbane but won't attend the match, just wants a decider to remember but wouldn't go against his son's happiness this week.

"If I had to choose anyone to not play Souths it would be Penrith, but the fact is they're there," Cartwright said.

"It's great for Jed to be part of a grand final week. If you look purely on football, Penrith have had a pretty tough run. It's all about momentum and adrenaline at the moment.

"They've had three grinding games and that's going to hold them in good stead. It's going to be a fantastic game."

The last say

Geyer believes if the Panthers are unable to replicate their 1990-1991 efforts, it won't be the end for Ivan Cleary's side.

However, he fears the mental game of bouncing back from two grand final defeats could get the better of them next year.

"I don't think that will be it for them because they've got such a young team who will be competitive for at least another five years," he said.

"But with how well they've gone in the past two years, to fall short again, you've got the whole off-season to think about it.

"Mentally that's harder to come back from."

Royce Simmons celebrates after scoring against Canberra in the 1991 grand final.
Royce Simmons celebrates after scoring against Canberra in the 1991 grand final. ©NRL Photos

Simmons is confident Geyer won't have anything to worry about.

"The hardest part is getting back there," Simmons said.

"Going through this year and hoping you don't get injuries … putting your best team on the paddock come grand final day is super important and if you can't you're going to struggle to win.

"They've got a few injuries but can't let that affect their performances. Everyone's got their own problems, you've just got to let it least affect you.

"This group is a special mob of nice young boys. They treat you with all the respect in the world. They'll get the job done."