There is a lot to be said about the value of a good youth system, especially with the current strength and depth of the Penrith Panthers.
Many of the brightest talents in the NRL today earned a name for themselves in the since-forgotten Holden Cup, the national under-20s competition.
While many players have gone on to greatness individually, the challenges of keeping a talented young squad together are seemingly too hard for the majority of clubs. Teams are routinely disassembled as some players go searching for first-team opportunities, some bide their time in reserve grade and others fade from memory into a life away from the game.
The Reward for Retention
If you need an example of the value of developing a group of junior players through the same system, you only need to look at the premiers.
The Panthers’ 2013 Holden Cup title-winning squad featured a number of recognisable names including Isaah Yeo, Bryce Cartwright, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Waqa Blake, as well as former Dally M Centre of the Year James Roberts.
All of those players (but Roberts) were retained by the club and promoted to the NRL ranks. Over the next five years, the Panthers made the finals four times with a squad built around this core. Though most of that team except for Yeo have moved on, the benefits were already clear.
Penrith’s next under-20s premiership came just two years later, in a squad containing several familiar names.
While he missed the grand final due to commitments with the Australian Schoolboys, Nathan Cleary was vital in 2015. He was replaced for the final two games by another young standout – Jarome Luai. That squad also included Dylan Edwards, Moses Leota, James Fisher-Harris, Liam Martin and Mitch Kenny.
Penrith has long been a rugby league nursery but they’ve now nailed down a solid strategy for development from lower grades to NRL, they’re assured of a spot near the top of the rugby league landscape for years to come.
It’s also benefitted the NSW Cup, with the Panthers a regular feature at the top half of the table. In 2021 they were six points clear at the top before the competition was abandoned, they won the minor premiership in 2018 and the title proper in 2017.
Praise should be heaped upon Cameron Ciraldo, who has been central to helping these young players take the next steps. While other Panthers assistants have moved on to various roles elsewhere, Ciraldo has stayed despite immense interest in his talents every time a coach is sacked, such is his worth to the organisation.
Now the defending premiers sit atop the table again after making back-to-back grand finals and securing a long-awaited premiership. It boggles the mind how far they are ahead of the competition.
But with one eye on history and another on the field, there’s one team who could stand in the way of a Penrith dynasty – thanks to a similar focus on squad retention.
Succession in the Shire
While the Panthers were storming to the 2015 Holden Cup title, on the other side of Sydney the Cronulla Sharks were winning the SG Ball (under-19) and Harold Matthews (under-16) premierships to little fanfare.
Though those competitions are no guarantee of future success, to win both in the same year points to a wealth of junior talent that would see any club benefit long-term if they could find a way to keep the core of this young squad intact.
Though he wasn’t with them for those junior titles, second-rower Briton Nikora came to the Sharks youth system at the end of 2016 – and he could already see the benefits of squad retention in action.
“Will (Kennedy) and Blayke (Brailey) had just won those comps, they’d been together a while,” Nikora tells Zero Tackle.
“The boys were really welcoming. It was hard to make the team but some space opened up once the older players had their time (in under-20s).
“The team was on a high. It was great to get amongst a group that already knew each other, it definitely makes things easier.”
Come 2017, Cronulla was dominating the Holden Cup. The Sharks were virtually unstoppable, finishing seven points clear of Penrith for the minor premiership (just six points separated 2nd and 9th that year).
They finished the season with an unbelievable 920 points scored and a for and against of +474. It was record-breaking – but the reason this season is rarely remembered is because they were unable to finish it off.
Injuries and fatigue resulted in a late-season slump that saw them lose their final two games of the regular season (they’d lost two all year to that point) before the minor premiers were bounced from the finals in straight sets by eventual grand finalists Parramatta and Manly.
Nikora makes no excuses for the abrupt end to a stellar season.
“We choked at the end,” he admits.
But that shouldn’t overshadow what an incredible year it was. Though Kyle Flanagan has since departed, there are as many members of that squad still plying their trade in the Shire as there are 2015 graduates at Penrith.
Will Kennedy, Sione Katoa, Jesse Ramien, Blayke Brailey and Nikora were all regular starters. Katoa in particular was dominant, leading the league for tries (23), tackle-breaks (239) and line-breaks (36). Nikora added 16 four-pointers from the back-row and Brailey finished with 28 try assists and a league-leading 25 line-break assists.
These players would soon be joined by other rapidly-rising Sharks juniors like Ronaldo Mulitalo and Teig Wilton.
Fresh from an NRL premiership, the club was stacked with first-grade experience which slowed the young Sharks’ arrival to the NRL. But the Newtown Jets were able to reap the rewards thanks to the club’s feeder arrangement in the NSW Cup.
“(2017) felt like a blown opportunity. It was sad to go out that way but it was really good to have that year with the boys,” Nikora says.
“Then we all went up (to NSW Cup) the following year. Keeping the same combinations made it a lot easier to develop.”
The Jets won their first title in the competition in 2019 – with a squad that included Kennedy, Katoa, Nikora, Mulitalo, Jack Williams, Braydon Trindall, Toby Rudolf, Brailey and more. Every one of those players is still contracted to the Sharks – and most for years to come. Retention has been a clear focus, and it’s delivering rewards.
And it’s not just the core of the group that has benefitted from continuity.
“Knowing everyone these past five years makes everything easier,” Nikora says.
“Even the boys who’ve only been here a little while, or (coach Craig Fitzgibbon) with his game plans, it makes training a lot easier. We’ve known each other for ages and we’re really loving our footy (as a result).
“It helps everyone play to each other’s strengths and understand how their teammates play. In some ways, I guess it’s a bit like Penrith.”
Even without the Holden Cup the Sharks have maintained a solid youth development plan, with more talented juniors coming through the ranks recently committing to longer deals as they approach the fringes of the NRL Top 30, including Tom Hazleton, Jesse Colquohoun and Kayal Iro.
It’s a remarkably similar strategy to the one that has helped the Panthers, albeit executed a little differently.
Though they may be about two years behind the current premiers on a similar timeline, adhering to a comparable system has the Sharks about as close as any other team to catching the runaway leaders.
With so many traditional powerhouses on the slide and other teams struggling for consistency under the weight of expectation, the black, white and blue might be the only ones equipped to try and spoil a dynasty.
Not just this weekend, but for years to come.