Few NRL clubs embody their lineage more than grand finalists Penrith

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<span>Photograph: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

It was 30 years ago that the Penrith Panthers broke through for their maiden premiership win in 1991. In the much-mythologised victory, club legend Royce Simmons farewelled the game with two tries, the premiership trophy above his head and a promise to have a beer with everyone. Star halfback Greg Alexander was the centrepiece of the title surge and had the game of a lifetime in the decider. Phil Gould had emerged as the hottest young mind in the game, winning his second premiership in four season and coaching in his third grand final in four years. A highly touted crop of local juniors had come of age.

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Fast forward to 2003. Penrith were resurgent, again on the back of a quality class of juniors who had grown up in the district and loved playing with each other. A father and son duo who were known to be incredibly close played pivotal roles. A hard-nosed and aggressive pack paved the way to premiership success. A duo of Polynesian players became cult heroes.

The links and similarities between the 2021 Panthers and their two premiership-winning predecessors are prolific. Few clubs embody their history or lineage more than Penrith. The Panthers know what they are and are at their best when they live that.

The 2021 version is again a high watermark for a generation of Penrith juniors who have come through the grades together. The star is another halfback who has dealt with the weight of heavy expectation from a young age. His father just happens to be the coach. A highly aggressive and well-heeled pack has laid the platform. The Polynesian contingent is larger in 2021 than 2003 but the popularity of Brian To’o and Jarome Luai certainly matches that of the beloved ‘Hair Bears’.

The connections to Penrith’s past are very real. The Panthers have had 20 players turn out for 10 or more games. Eleven of those came through the junior nursery while three more were from the central west where the Panthers have a huge presence. Nathan Cleary probably lacked the athletic brilliance of a young Alexander in his junior years but both were inspirational on-field generals with quality kicking games and a sense of reliability. Both were admired as local kids who had not only made it but carried a team on their back.

There is a serendipity to this Penrith team that defies logic or common sense but will provide a sense of calm

The Clearys are very different propositions to the Langs but a father coaching and a son playing has a poetry to it befitting the Penrith narrative. When the Panthers have been successful, they have typically been led by a very aggressive forward. In ‘91 it was Mark Geyer and in 2003 they had Martin Lang. Liam Martin and James Fisher-Harris both fill that role with vicious aplomb.

Gould’s fingerprints are, once again, all over this title tilt despite having left the club two and a half years ago. Gould is both much respected and much derided and his stint as Panthers general manager of football only solidified the view of him as a flawed genius. His five-year plan was the source of much mockery – particularly given that period came and went without a premiership – but during his eight years at Penrith he played a key role in cleaning out an old and embittered guard, driving cultural change and reprioritising the junior league. He made some serious missteps with both his coaches and his actual power base but his impact should not be forgotten.

Nathan and Ivan Cleary
Few will feel it or understand what this grand final means to the Panthers more than Nathan and Ivan Cleary. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

History, of course, means very little when a team runs out on grand final day when a stadium is full, a fan base rabid, the pressure as intense as it gets. With the Panthers, though, this is in their DNA. They will go onto the Suncorp field full of belief, not only in their own individual abilities or even what the collective can achieve, but in the power of club and legacy and success.

There is a serendipity to this Penrith team that defies logic or common sense but will provide a sense of calm to Panthers players in what is always a hectic and highly unusual week. Few will feel or understand it more than the Clearys, students of the game and strongly steeped in its history.

Opportunities to become part of such a history are rare. Some stumble into it. The Clearys, they have been searching for it. It is at their doorstep. They are favoured in a decider. They have the experience of losing one. They have a clear link to the past. Deep, deep, deep down they will know this is not an opportunity to be missed.

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