Throughout the 2016 NRL finals series, we’re paying tribute to the premiership-winning teams of the modern era. First up, it’s the Penrith Panthers’ inaugural triumph.
The Penrith Panthers were the whipping boys of the competition from their 1967 inception until the mid-1980s, when they belatedly qualified for the finals for the first time. After becoming established as regular finalists during the late-1980s, the Panthers came of age in 1990 under new coach Phil Gould by reaching their maiden grand final, where they went down 18-14 to all-conquering Canberra.
The mountain men were the benchmark in 1991, however, with Brad Fittler, Mark Geyer and John Cartwright getting valuable experience on the previous year’s Kangaroo Tour, alongside their marquee star, Greg Alexander.
Alexander was installed as skipper ahead of long-serving hooker Royce Simmons, while the likes of former Test forward Paul Dunn and powerhouse winger Graham Mackay joined the club via the short-lived Draft.
The Panthers reached the final of the pre-season Challenge Cup – going down to Brisbane in a thriller – before powering through the first eight rounds of the season unbeaten.
The club secured its first minor premiership, finishing six points clear of the field by winning eight of their last nine games, and advanced to the grand final via a tense 16-14 eclipse of North Sydney in the major semi.
The Raiders, ravaged by injuries and a salary cap scandal, won their way through to the decider and carved out a 12-6 halftime lead courtesy of a Matthew Wood double. Geyer’s second-half sin-binning also threatened their title dream, but the Panthers held their nerve, levelling through a brilliant Brad Izzard try before Alexander put them in front with a 73rd-minute field goal.
With time running out, Canberra tried a short line dropout, from which Geyer put Simmons over for his second try of the match. Alexander sealed a 19-12 victory with the sideline conversion.
Alexander hoisted the trophy, but Simmons was the sentimental hero. The rugged former Test rake was dropped earlier in the season, but fought his way back into first grade on the eve of the finals. The grand final was just his seventh start of the season, but he retired in fairytale fashion after scoring the first try-double of his illustrious career.
— The Winfield Cup (@winfield_cup) February 29, 2016
— The Winfield Cup (@winfield_cup) February 22, 2016
22 September 1991. Penrith Panthers 19 vs Canberra Raiders 12. What a moment. Royce Simmons & Mark Geyer celebrate … pic.twitter.com/YxkqIOU7u0
— Panthers Selfie (@Panthersselfie1) May 27, 2016
The Panthers endured a harrowing fall from their pedestal, with the club plunging into turmoil following young utility Ben Alexander’s tragic death in June of 1992.
By the end of 1994, only Fittler, Carter, Cartwright and Barry Walker remained from their grand final squad, leaving the Panthers to rebuild under new coach Simmons during the Super League war years. Penrith regrouped in the early-2000s under John Lang and claimed its second title in 2003.
PENRITH PANTHERS – 1991 STATISTICS
Regular Season Record: Played 22, won 17, lost 4, drew 1; points for 483, points against 250.
Finals Matches: Major Semi-final – d. North Sydney 16-14; Grand Final – d. Canberra 19-12.
Biggest Win: 42-8 v Eastern Suburbs, Round 22.
Biggest Loss: 20-0 v Canberra, Round 11.
Most Games: Steve Carter (24).
Top Try-scorer: Graham Mackay (16).
Top Point-scorer: Greg Alexander (139).
Player of the Year: Steve Carter.
Award Winners: Dally M Halfback of the Year – Greg Alexander; Dally M Second-rower of the Year – John Cartwright.