It’s possibly a little too early to be writing this article but with the minor premiership secured and a week out from the finals, the signs are just too real.
It’s common knowledge that the last time the Panthers claimed the minor premiership, they were also crowned premiers in that magical 2003 season.
Rewind a little over 12 months prior and they concluded the 2002 season with a thumping 40-point win (68-28) over the Northern Eagles in the final round.
Interestingly, Penrith had entered the 2002 season under a new coach in John Lang, who while vastly experienced was still looking for his first top-grade premiership as coach.
Failing to make the finals, the Panthers clearly underachieved in 2002, but the final round blowout and a talented roster, dominated by local juniors at least suggested better times ahead.
Before we come back to 2020, let’s also go back 12 months to the last round of the 2019 season where the Panthers, featuring a roster dominated by talented local juniors and playing under an experienced coach in his first season (admittedly his second stint as Panthers coach) brought the curtain down on a disappointing year with a 44-point hammering (54-10) of the Knights.
Again, a Panthers team that had underachieved in the eyes of most pundits closed the season against a fellow team that wouldn’t be playing finals with a blowout that at least gave their fans some optimism for the next year.
Interestingly, both the 2002 and 2019 teams handed first grade debuts to five players; all local juniors and all would play a key role in the clubs’ success the following year.
The 2003 and 2020 teams were and are led around the field by a home-grown halfback, Craig Gower and Nathan Cleary respectively; both of whom debuted with the club at the tender age of 18.
In case you were wondering, the other great Panthers halfback, who guided the team to the 1991 premiership debuted just a few weeks after his nineteenth birthday. Speaking of halves, it’s difficult not to see glimpses of the fleet-footed Preston Campbell from his 2003 heyday in Jarome Luai.
Both teams feature(d) a smart dummy-half, in Luke Priddis and Apisai Koroisau, both of whom tasted premiership success at other clubs before joining the Panthers.
I still say Priddis’ performance in the 2003 decider was the best grand final performance I’ve seen, but that’s a debate for another day.
On either side of the front row, stood a home-grown prop and an experienced recruit. In 2003 it was Joel Clinton and Martin Lang; while this year it’s the unbreakable James Fisher-Harris and James Tamou.
Standing behind them, it’s hard not to see some similarities between Tony Puletua, a huge try-scoring back-rower and Viliame Kikau, another dominant ball-runner who regularly finds his way to the try-line.
Furthermore, the outside backs of the 2003 vintage were anchored by the experience and guile of Ryan Girdler. The remaining three of Lewis, Whatuira and Rooney had barely 100 games experience between them going into the finals.
Fast-forward to the current version and without the experienced Josh Mansour on the wing, the outside backs of Naden, Crichton and To’o are all new to the top grade.
Both teams enjoyed a fairly charmed run with injuries, with the 2003 Panthers using just 28 players across 29 games including finals.
At the time of writing, the 2020 team had used a total of 26 players in 19 games. Interestingly enough, tireless forward Scott Sattler – who can ever forget that sideline tackle on Todd Byrne? – entered the 2003 finals series having already signed with the Wests Tigers for the following year.
Cue James Tamou following the same path for 2021.
The Panthers went into the 2003 finals series as minor premiers. Yet as will be the case for the 2020 outfit, they weren’t as highly rated as the defending premiers the Sydney Roosters.
They were also considered a rung below a strong Bulldogs team, while the Warriors, the previous years’ beaten grand finalists were also highly fancied. Again, like the 2020 team, the 2003 outfit didn’t boast the most potent attack and they didn’t lead the points differential table.
Yet, both teams were known for playing a consistent brand of football that concentrated on maintaining possession, dominating field position and maintaining intensity for the full 80 minutes.
Of course, the 2003 Panthers, with a combined 1501 games of first grade experience went into the grand final as serious underdogs against the defending premiers, the Sydney Roosters.
Yet despite collectively having less than half the experience in games played and a fraction of the finals know-how, the young Panthers simply wore down the more fancied Roosters in an 18-6 win on a wet October night, during a stretch when grand finals were played in October.
Should Penrith make it to the grand final in a months’ time, their likely grand final team will likely boast between 1450 and 1500 games of experience. This year’s grand final will be played October 25th.
Maybe it’s a lot of false hope and maybe it’s a case of this long-term Panthers fan simply looking for reasons to believe this could be our year. Either way, I’m feverishly reading the tea leaves and I love what they’re telling me.
Oh, and one more thing… the victorious 2003 coach had his son in the team.