The 1990 NSWRL grand final between the Penrith Panthers and Canberra Raiders saw the mountain men reach their first decider after joining the competition in 1967.
The previous two seasons would see the Panthers finish both years in the finals. The year earlier they would be defeated by the Raiders in a semi-final before the Raiders went on to win their maiden premiership in what many considered to be the greatest decider of all time against the Balmain Tigers.
There was a strong feeling that Penrith were on the verge of something special. Phil Gould had made his way to the foot of the mountains to take the helm of a club he once played for. He came in as a premiership-winning coach after taking the Bulldogs to glory in 1988. Two weeks earlier the Panthers defeated the Raiders 30-12 in a semi-final that would give them a week off and send them straight into the grand final.
It had the potential for the ultimate fairytale. The ruthless Raiders were one of the most dominant sides at the time with the likes of Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley, Ricky Stuart, Glenn Lazarus and Steve Walters coached by the great Tim Sheens.
However, Penrith boasted players such as Greg Alexander, John Cartwright, Brad Fittler and Royce Simmons among other greats. It had all the ingredients for a classic grand final. Ultimately the Panthers would come up short, losing by four points to the Raiders as Canberra fans rejoiced knowing that Winfield Cup would be remaining in the nation’s capital for another year.
The 1991 season would bring Phil Gould one of his greatest challenges: to get his men to do all the hard work again and get back to playing in a grand final. Sporting a new look, going from the chocolate soldiers to the liquorice all sorts, the Panthers would finish the year as minor premiers for their first time in history. Then after winning a close match against the North Sydney Bears, they were once again in a decider, looking to write a redemption story.
It would be a repeat of the previous decider against the Canberra Raiders, but this time they were more prepared, more ready to handle the Raiders’ dominance and put them to the sword. With it being the final game of Royce Simmons’ career, his teammates were hellbent on sending him out a winner. With the scores locked at 12-12, Greg Alexander successfully landed a field goal to give his team the one-point advantage. And then the iconic moment came when Royce crossed the line for the final try of the match and the last try of his career. Penrith had won their first premiership.
For the Panthers, they didn’t reach those heights again until the 2003 grand final – 1991 was the peak of their golden era. Whereas the Raiders continued their dominance, picking up another grand final victory in 1994 – their last. Both sides’ most successful years came around the same time in the late ’80s and early ’90s. They met again at certain points throughout the decades. Some of their biggest matches were meeting each other in the 2000 finals series and the 2010 finals series.
In recent times they faced each other in a semi-final match in 2016, a successful season for both teams, but it would be the Raiders ending the year for the Panthers. The two sides met in a memorable match in Bathurst with a classic ending that saw the Panthers score twice in the final three minutes to grab the win. As we get closer to the start of a new decade, and a new season in the NRL, what chapter will be written in the Panthers versus Raiders rivalry next?
Canberra came so close to winning their first premiership in over 20 years against the Roosters in 2019. Like the Panthers of 1990, the Raiders entered that decider with a lot of momentum on their side. The English contingent added the toughness they needed to win the big one.
Unfortunately for them, it didn’t eventuate. For Ricky Stuart, he faces the task of getting his troops’ mentally and physically prepared to do all the hard work again and get themselves back in a position for a shot at glory. With George Williams being signed to the Raiders for the 2020 season, he could be the player needed to add that extra spark of creativity to bring them the ultimate success.
After the Raiders went deep into the finals in the 2016 season, they struggled in following seasons. It wasn’t until 2019 that they were back playing finals footy. Consistency has been the Achilles heel of Canberra. They have a strong enough side to win the premiership. The question is not a lack of skill or not being physically strong enough, but rather their mental resolve to overcome the controversy of their grand final loss and whether they have the patience to win on defence and become the first premiers of the new decade.
The Panthers of 2019 ended up being a disappointment.
Off-field drama and injuries disrupted Penrith and they failed to reach the finals for the first time since 2015. Some experts aren’t giving Penrith much of a chance in 2020, but with Jarome Luai set to partner Nathan Cleary in the halves, Api Koroisau returning to his former club as hooker and Trent Barrett coming back as an assistant coach, Penrith might have the creativity in attack they’ve been looking for, which could potentially be a dangerous threat to their opposition. It’s difficult to predict if they are going to be a top-four team or not, but they have a side that could make it back to the finals.
Historically the Panthers seem to do well when they are tipped not to do well. The best example was the Cinderella story of 2003.
Recently, when they had a horrid year in 2015, they were able to bounce back the next year and have a good season. The Panthers will be looking to put 2019 at the back of their minds and start their new decade with a bang. The Cleary and Luai combination should add a lot and they’ll complement each other. As the season progresses, Cleary, Luai, Koroisau and Dylan Edwards could become one of the more lethal spines in the competition.
There’s a chance that the Panthers and Raiders could once again meet in the finals. Both boast strong teams on paper and as long as off-field drama and injuries don’t get in the way, then the possibility of both teams meeting each other in September is likely with another chapter being written in the rivalry of the Panthers versus the Raiders.