If you are not from Sydney and have never visited Penrith, you should. It is a ripping place with great people, growing infrastructure and is blessed with the wide open spaces so infrequently found across Australia’s most populated city.
A family drive to the foot of the mountains, a picnic by the Nepean River and a cleverly co-ordinated trip to Panthers Stadium to watch the local NRL team go round, is highly recommended.
Some younger NRL fans are probably unaware of the Panthers’ relatively short existence in the NSWRL/ARL and NRL competitions. Whilst South Sydney, Sydney Roosters and Wests Tigers can call on near a century of memories and history, the Panthers are roughly half their age.
The club won five games in its inaugural year in 1967 and finished between 8th and 12th on the premiership ladder in each of its first 17 seasons. Soon after and with increasing on-field success, the club morphed into the more modern Panthers; somewhat symbolic of the growth in the area and the urban sprawl that saw the city centre become a hub of community activity.
Penrith’s 18th season (1984), saw the club achieve its best ever finish (7th). The following season would see the ‘Penny Panthers’ in the finals for the first time. The now veteran coach Tim Sheens was at the helm during that period and Ron Willey parlayed those first successes into finals’ appearances in 1988 and 1989.
Phil Gould took the reins in 1990 and after a grand final loss in his first season, produced the elusive premiership title the following year.
With a growing population, the newly successful team and talent to burn in the masses of young boys playing the game in the local junior competition, the future of the Panthers appeared limitless.
That talent was unquestionable. Names like Brad Fittler, Greg Alexander, Mark Geyer and Luke Lewis became household; just a few of the scores of young men from the region who left their permanent mark on the domestic game.
Sadly, there was to be something on an extended hang-over period post-1991 and one could easily be fooled for thinking that the chocolate soldiers are still to fully emerge from the celebrations of the clubs’ most famous day.
Despite the seemingly logically ascension to powerhouse status in Australian rugby league; riding a wave of local juniors, a powerful leagues club and increased corporate appeal, the Penrith Panthers have not achieved the sustained success for which their fans had hoped and opposition clubs had feared.
Since 1991, 27 years of first-grade football have been played. The Panthers’ record of one premiership (2003), two preliminary finals and an overall nine finals appearances is not something of which to write home.
Wooden spoons in 2001 and 2007 brought back memories of those dark, early days. Aside from the powerful premiership winning side of 2003 and a solid title defence in 2004 under the guidance of John Lang, the last quarter of a century has not played out as many predicted.
Matthew Elliott and Ivan Cleary failed to unlock the mystery and in 2011 the club brought back the enigmatic Phil Gould. As General Manager, Gould was charged with overseeing the day to day running of football operations.
Surely, the right pieces of the puzzle had finally been gathered? After just one semi-final appearance under Elliott, he departed. No doubt the new Gould-Cleary partnership would be a line in the sand moment for the club.
Sadly, after just one finals appearance during Cleary’s rein, Gould made the tough call on him and Anthony Griffin became the man in one of the hottest seats in the NRL.
The 2016 Opening of the A$22 million Panthers’ Rugby League Academy coincided with Griffin’s arrival. It was something of a symbolic representation of the potential power of the club; to be achieved via the immense rugby league nursery within the area.
Personally, if I was a Panthers fan I’d be quite sick of hearing about it. For decades we have heard about the strength of the junior talent pool, yet having first dibs on that talent and selecting and retaining the best of it has proven difficult.
As such, and despite three finals appearances under Griffin, nothing appeared to have changed. Little more than a middle-of-the-table side, the Panthers continued to fall well short of high expectations. Those expectations were based purely on a widely held assertion that they possessed a squad with premiership potential.
2019 has seen Cleary return, Gould depart and a diabolical start to the season. After five straight losses, the mountain men sit within a for-and-against point off the foot of the ladder.
As much as things change, they also appear to stay the same and another season of promise looks to have already slipped past the Penrith Panthers.
With the infrastructure in place, the talent available and the best minds involved, it appears there might be something fundamentally wrong in Penrith. If you work what it is, can you let us all know?