They may have come up short against the Melbourne Storm in the 2020 decider, but the Penrith Panthers are being heralded as the team of the coming decade.
They’re young, they’ve come up together and they now have big-game experience.
Why wouldn’t they absolutely brain it for the foreseeable?
Um, because Penrith.
Blergh, I know, I’m being a total snob and what a shitty thing to say about a suburb that I haven’t visited since Australia’s Wonderland shut down.
But if you want to know the biggest issue the Penrith Panthers face in keeping their young-gun crew together, it’s a simple question of geography.
Because why would you live in Mount Druitt if you can afford to live in Manly?
For what it’s worth, I work in the poorest suburb in Australia and live within walking distance. I’m penning this on a seven-year-old laptop and while I was lucky enough to attend one of Australia’s finest (read: most expensive) secondary schools, my kids aren’t going to a GPS institution unless I jag a win on Powerball.
Break out the violins, people (or just continue to click on my stories, it’s putting dinner on the table here in Waratah).
But while I love where I live and work, trading it in for a mansion with ocean views remains the dream.
And while that’s a ridiculous proposition for a hack with a Mac, it is entirely plausible for the likes of Jerome Luai, Brian To’o, Moses Leota, Tyrone May, Spencer Leniu or Stephen Crichton – AKA the kids who grew up on literal ‘Struggle Street’.
They’re going to be offered money the likes of which most can only dream, and good on them because if I can watch you in primetime on a Friday night on two different channels and a streaming service, you deserve to be paid fat stacks.
But when you’re banking ten grand a week, you’ll have no worries paying off your parents’ mortgage and then looking for your own place.
And why wouldn’t you take a leaf out of, say, Phil Gould’s book and set yourself down in a place where you can smell salt in the air?
Lifestyle is the issue the Panthers will struggle with in keeping their talented crew together, because how can the likes of club’s deputy chairman Greg Alexander legitimately preach the Pennie Gospel when he puts his head down on a pillow on Sydney’s Northern Beaches?
Penrith’s top brass may live in the area but those who don’t need to be there 40 hours a week have made the move away from the place Gus so lovingly calls “the golden west” from his house in the Shire.
And the commute is a bitch! While Penrith is technically part of greater Sydney, it’s essentially as far from the city as Gosford.
So if you’re being offered half a million or more dollars a year, which will pay off a mortgage on a sweet pad in just about anywhere in the world far quicker than the 30 years it’ll take most punters, well, why not live in a suburb that doesn’t have “above-average crime rates for domestic violence, drug offences, home break and enters and motor vehicle thefts”?
I know, I know, I know. I’m being a massive, massive knob. But if you can afford to, you’re far more likely to live somewhere heaps, heaps nice than not.
And after 17 wins in a row and a minor premiership, just about everyone at the Panthers is in line for a decent bump in pay.
Nathan Cleary isn’t. He’s on a million bucks a year and the Panthers will ensure he’s their marquee man for his entire career.
But what about Luai? Newcastle need a five-eighth, can afford the salary of a NSW Origin squad member, and a million bucks will get you the house of your dreams in Hamilton South.
And the Knights are hardly on their own with the off-the-field pitch – the lifestyle is better at most clubs in the NRL than the Panthers can offer. And the proof is the fact half the people at Penrith trying to keep these players at the club don’t actually live at the foot of the mountains!
So it stops being a question of how much you get paid and instead what you’re buying with the money. And Tom Trbojevic – if he ever moves out of his parents’ house – smashes Nathan Cleary on that front even if he gets paid marginally less.
I’m not saying Penrith’s roster is going to be decimated by the fact they play out of Panthers Stadium. But six of their brightest young stars came up in a suburb that SBS – the most generous TV network in Australia – blew apart with a doco that was described as “poverty porn”.
These kids are going to be offered huge money from clubs that service an area that SBS wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Some of them are going to see that greener grass and decide it’s where they want to pasture.
That’s the biggest issue the Panthers face – not the dollars they can offer but what their players want to spend it on.