Cronulla were cooked long before Charlie Staines found his range at Kogarah, but with the sticks split after the Forbes tearaway’s third, Nathan Cleary had effectively put the statistical dagger through the Sharks’ season.
The Penrith Panthers seem to churn out player after player, and not just a debutant who’s getting a chance, when they take the field, they really make the type of impact that makes you wonder what the Panthers junior system is doing so well.
You might point to the fact that the Panthers have one of the largest junior bases in the NRL, and it’s inevitable that some of those players are going to be superstars, which is a fair argument.
I do believe however, that a lot of credit should go to the Penrith club and their ability to nurture and develop talent, and ensure that the best young players in the country and being provided the environment to prosper.
The list of talented youngsters is endless, and the level of these players that the Panthers have at their discretion to pick out of reserve grade and Jersey Flegg is the envy of the competition.
Just this year, the Panthers have blooded eight debutants, which is more than any other club. The list includes Brian To’o, Liam Martin, Mitch Kenny, Matt Burton to name a few. The three aforementioned have each become regular starters in the NRL, and I’m sure the three debutants from Friday night’s win against the Sharks will also go onto replicate this.
The previous crop of excellent talent included players like Matt Moylan, Bryce Cartwright and Waqa Blake. This in itself is sad considering all three of these players now operate at different clubs. However it also highlights the production line of the Panthers whereby they can afford to let these players go, as they keep producing new talent that will be just as good.
Each year, the Panthers side seemed to blood debutants who look like first graders already. Think of Viliame Kikau in 2017, he may not be a Panthers junior but he’s made his debut at the club, and is now considered one of the most damaging forwards in the game. From the 17 named on the weekend, there was only James Tamou who didn’t make his debut for the club.
Whatever way you look at that, it’s quite an astonishing feat that the Panthers have debuted that much talent over the past few years.
In contrast, you look at other clubs who struggle to nurture the same amount of talent. For example the Titans and the Raiders, they may not have the same area for recruitment but I think that’s a pretty flawed argument considering the Storm have developed some of the best players in the world, and they are in the most alien rugby league city in Australia.
Your catchment area comes into play but what’s also integral is your processes, eye for talent, facilities and overall junior pathways. This is something the Panthers have mastered. Any club can get a lot of talented youngsters, but talent (usually) only gets you so far. They’ve invested heavily in this department by having the best facilities and best coaches available, and this investment is paying dividends with the bulk of fantastic young players emerging.
Before Gus Gould came to the Panthers, they were struggling and their junior systems were non existent, with the majority of talent moving to the other western Sydney clubs such as the Eels or the Bulldogs.
By inputting a pathway that nurtures talent and also provides a clear pathway between the junior grades and the NRL, the best juniors are enticed to go play for the Panthers, and they ensure they retain the best local talent.
James Maloney is leaving at the end of the 2020 season and for most other clubs that would put a gaping hole within their squad.
However at the Panthers, they have waiting in line two of the best young five-eights in the game in Jarome Luai and now Matt Burton, who’s performance on the weekend was one of the most composed debuts I’ve seen.
I’m not undermining the importance of Maloney, he will be missed sorely by the Panthers, and he’s been one of the back halfbacks in the game for the past 6 to 7 years.
What I am saying is, it’s a mark of the depth and level of talent that the Panthers have that they don’t need to go into the market and recruit for a five-eighth as they have two extremely adept replacements.
Maloney leaving also frees up around $800,000 in the salary cap, money which they can utilise to lock down their best young talent.
I don’t believe the Panthers get the respect they deserve for the way the club has developed talents into first graders.
They have come in for criticism for the circus that engulfed the club over the off season with Anthony Griffin being sacked and then Ivan Cleary coming back in, and the scandal involving the players only provided fuel for the fire.
But purely from a footballing and development perspective, I believe the Panthers are leading the pack, and a lot of clubs could do worse than copying the blueprint the Panthers have laid down.