Following a disappointing 24-6 loss to the ever-consistent Sydney Roosters which has slammed the door shut on the Panthers’ finals hopes for 2019, the annual player dump and a lack of consistent thinking from the top-down has proven to be the undoing of the mountain men.
While the beginning of Phil Gould’s five-year planning is widely regarded as the last time the Penrith Panthers were in the dreaded rebuilding phase, the consistent roster and salary cap overhaul at the foot of the mountains in the past few seasons seems to fall more in line with a bottom four club looking for a quick fix rather than the consistent top eight powerhouse they are trying to become.
Following comments made by Knights legend Andrew Johns this week that Newcastle’s administration had “sabotaged” their season, a look into Penrith’s recent dealing has shown that the higher-ups in the Hunter Valley have got nothing on the consistent chaos that the Panthers have been dishing out.
Since the 2014 season, the Panthers have released 17 genuine first-graders from long-term contracts, including the likes of Waqa Blake, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Apisai Koroisau, Corey Harawira-Naera, Trent Merrin, Te Maire Martin, and Matt Moylan, who’s replacement James Maloney was ironically just released from the remainder of his contract. This does not even take into account the releases of local juniors and favourite sons Michael Jennings and Luke Lewis in the 2012 offseason, not to mention the four coaching changes they have gone through in the same time period.
While the end game of Gould’s five-year plan was no doubt a premiership, it placed greater emphasis on “overhauling a system that failed to take advantage of the biggest rugby league nursery in the country” and “rebuilding a club that had no money, no direction, no plans and no intention of executing anything but a stop-gap solution for short term success”, Gould told the Sydney Morning Herald.
This led to a complete overhaul of Penrith’s junior pathways, with only 20% of their roster being homegrown in 2012, as opposed to 80% being homegrown in their 2018 roster, the final full year Gould had at Penrith. While this new emphasis on promoting the best of their local youth is positive in terms of ensuring competition for places was high and keeping the senior players honest, it has forced the Panthers into a less than desirable cycle that they have been repeating since Gould took over the reins at Penrith.
Since Gould began, Penrith seems to have been un-consciously rolling through the same pattern that has ultimately led them to a bottom eight finish in 2019. That is, the Panthers consistently promote youth, which is often followed by success and good performances, resulting in an upgraded and extended contract with the club.
However, typically after a run of lean games or injury this player is released to ease salary cap pressure after the Panthers have once again promoted some of their youngsters who then need to be locked down to new deals. Then the cycle starts all over again. This has been seen in numerous players coming through the Panthers system in previous seasons, including Matt Moylan, Waqa Blake, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Bryce Cartwright, Corey Harawira-Naera, Te Maire Martin and Lachlan Coote.
On paper, this cycle is promising, if it is let to run its course. However, therein lies the problem, the Panthers never let it complete. Instead, they opt to chop and change looking for the next young quick fix, failing to let the current crop mature and become accustomed to each others style of play.
The last time the Panthers had a relatively stable roster with minimal pre-, and mid-season changes, was the beginning in 2014, with only under-performing stars Tim Grant and Lachlan Coote on the outer. The Panthers would go onto finish that season in fourth, go figure.
With new world-class facilities and largest junior catchment area in rugby league, the Panthers should have more to show for than two top-four finishes in 10 years, and if they are to improve on those results it would be wise to get out of the dreaded cycle they have found themselves in.
But with rumours of Reagen Campbell-Gillard, Dean Whare and promising youngster Jack Hetherington being shopped around to rival clubs following the releases of Waqa Blake, James Maloney, and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, I would not bet on Penrith changing tact anytime soon.