They say you have to lose one to win one – Grand Finals that is – but Penrith Panthers General Manager Phil Gould is set to go one better and bury that old cliché deep beneath the surface of Sportingbet Stadium.
One of Gould’s first acts as the new emperor of Penrith was to poach Warriors coach Ivan Cleary from Auckland, a man who led New Zealand to a Grand Final appearance just after inking his deal with the Panthers and featured in the Warriors’ maiden decider as a player.
Gould installed Cleary as head coach of the Panthers because Cleary is a winner.
When the Brisbane Broncos were putting together their squad in those early years, Wayne Bennett made it his mission to bring Glenn Lazarus, Kevin Walters and Peter Jackson to the club from the Canberra Raiders.
Some players have it and some don’t. They were winners and Bennett knew it.
A few years ago, Penrith officials took a hardline stance with club superstars Luke Lewis and Michael Jennings. At the time it seemed almost criminal to let them go, especially Lewis, who was their captain. It was a simple equation though: you either want to bleed for the Panthers or you don’t.
Letting the brilliant but ill-disciplined Jennings go made sense, but Lewis too?
Like Bennett did with another Lewis at the Broncos, the Panthers let their man leave.
The Panthers were stale as a football team and a brand. The exit of their two most effective marketing tools seemed like professional suicide. What Penrith has done, however, is fast-track the culture that should have always been there.
Long gone are the days of Lewis’ or Jennings’ image on billboards and inside newspapers. All the club needs now is its logo. The Panthers, as a brand, are selling themselves once more. They’ve restored the faith of their fans and people are falling over themselves to see their team play.
Experienced recruits Peter Wallace and Jamie Soward, who both endured career-worst seasons last year, have been superb as Penrith’s halves in 2014 and are controlling matches better than just about any combination in the game at present. It just feels like these two have been playing together at the foot of the mountains for a decade.
Then there is Elijah Taylor, Sika Manu, Brent Kite, Tyrone Peachey and Lewis Brown – all signed from rival NRL clubs in the last two years. They may never be the subject of the poster on the kid’s wall, but all sixteen NRL coaches would jump at having these five men in their side.
What about Dean Whare and James Segeyaro?
Both were destined for long careers at their former clubs, Manly-Warringah and North Queensland respectively, but instead they chose to buy into Cleary and Gould’s vision.
And now one of the most exciting hooker prospects in the NRL today, Apisai Koroisau, has announced his defection from South Sydney for 2015, which will open the door for arguably the most potent dummy-half rotation in the competition.
In-form winger Josh Mansour was supposedly on his way to taking up a big-money deal with Canberra, before announcing he was staying put.
“Penrith is where my heart is, and it’s where I want my footy career to be right now,” Mansour said after re-signing.
“We are playing some really good footy as a team and I am so lucky to be a part of that. Working under Ivan has been a really good learning experience the last few years, and I feel like he brings out the best in me”.
Prior to the new regime at the Panthers, these players simply wouldn’t have signed, some of the local talent would have been squeezed out and senior players’ massive contracts questioned.
Today, the Panthers have never been in a better position to claim a third first grade premiership.
Matt Moylan, Bryce Cartwright, Josh Mansour and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak might be the future of the club if the future wasn’t already there.
Whether it’s the veteran Soward, the player entering his prime Segeyaro or the rookie Cartwright, these men can no doubt feel something special brewing at Penrith and it’s evident every time they run out onto the field.
A Rugby League team could field whoever they want, but if they don’t believe they’ll never win anything. The Panthers believe.
Who says you have to lose one to win one? Penrith claimed the title in 2003 without having played in a Grand Final for 12 years.
They can do it again this year.
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