PANTHER TALES | Summer days


These days, the pre-season is typified by a loose organisation of matches, generally against fellow premiership teams of varying strength.

But for most seasons from the club’s foundation year in 1967 through to the mid-1990s, there was an official pre-season competition, one that underwent a number of formats and naming rights sponsors. And it was this very format that presented the Panthers their very first piece of silverware.

Friday 24 February 1967 was the day that the Panthers made their first appearance as a Sydney premiership team, up against fellow premiership debutants Cronulla at Redfern Oval. The Sharks at one time led 12-4, however, the Panthers fought back to register an 18-12 victory. The following week, the new boys notched another win, this time against their western Sydney rival in waiting, Parramatta. The Panthers would provide good displays against premiership heavyweights South Sydney and Balmain, but not qualify for the semi finals.

In 1968, the new boys issued a bold declaration of their credentials. Penrith defeated Newtown 28-12 in the final on 24 March at the Sydney Sports Ground. They were undefeated through the preliminary stages and then narrowly defeated Parramatta 9-4 in the semi final. Any afterglow, though, was short lived, as it did not translate to a semi-finals appearance during the season proper – a goal that in itself would remain elusive until 1985.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the Panthers would not advance past the preliminary stages. Most of these subsequent seasons would involve a minimum of 3 matches in a round-robin pool structure, with the exception of the 1975 tournament where a loss in the first match was immediate elimination.

The pre-season tournament, which had been sponsored by a number of tobacco companies was discontinued after the 1981 season. Between 1982 and its re-introduction in 1990, the pre-season was generally a hit out in the bush against teams from those parts or against other premiership teams.

Its return in 1990, known as the Channel 10 Challenge Cup, was a knockout format, and it predominantly centred on the regional areas of New South Wales and Queensland. By 1990, Penrith were on the rise as a premiership powerhouse, and the results showed. The Panthers advanced to the 1990 final with victories over Brisbane in Toowoomba, Gold Coast in Albury and Western Suburbs in Bathurst, only to lose to Canberra 12-2 at Parramatta Stadium in the final.

The 1991 Lotto Challenge Cup saw the Panthers make the final again, via victories in Port Macquarie, Dubbo and Wagga Wagga. The final was staged in Broken Hill, but their opponents, Brisbane, were crowned champions with a 20-16 win. Penrith were to win a larger, more important piece of silverware, however, on 22 September of that year.

From 1992 through to its final season in 1995 (known as the Tooheys Challenge), results varied between a round 1 elimination to elimination in the next stage, that being the quarter final. It was removed from the schedule from the 1996 season to date, reverting back to the format generally kept during its first hiatus period.

Since 1988, a number of seasons have had an abbreviated version of rugby league – firstly a seven a side tournament and more recently a nine a side tournament.

The Sevens was initially the then Winfield Cup teams, and in the early 1990s was expanded to include other teams from Australia and worldwide. It had a hiatus from 1998 to 2002, returning for two more seasons in 2003 and 2004 before being permanently shelved from 2005 onwards. There were three different trophies available – the trophy for tournament winners, and then plate and shield as well for lower ranked winners. No silverware was obtained, let alone any finals appearances – the highest attained positions being semi finals appearances in 1988, 1994 and 1995.

In 2014, a Nines tournament was introduced, which includes all 16 NRL teams and played in Auckland. Split into a four pool round robin competition, it was played for four seasons until 2017. Results were mixed in the first three editions, with a quarter finals appearance in the first tournament, followed by not advancing past the pool stage in 2015 and 2016. In 2017, as one of the rank outsiders, the Panthers finished top of their pool as the only undefeated team, and then powered their way through to the final, only to go down 10-8 in the final against the Sydney Roosters. It made a return in 2020, with the tournament hosted in Perth. The Panthers made the quarter finals. With COVID resulting in a shortened pre-season for 2021, it was shelved, with no return in 2022 and uncertainty with its return.

In recent years, the main event in Penrith’s pre-season calendar have been matches versus Parramatta. It has been marketed as the Battle of the West, with matches generally held at Penrith in mid-February – the only exception was in 2020, when it was played in the NSW south coast town of Bega, and doubled as a fundraiser for the Black Summer bushfires that had rampaged a large section of south eastern Australia. Honours have generally been shared on the win-loss scale. Other trials are held against fellow NRL teams in various locations. These matches have larger squads than the standard 17 player squads seen during the premiership, and are seen as a way to give fringe players a shot, as well as try out new plays and combinations.

With the constant calls from all levels of the rugby league hierarchy about the number of matches, player burn out and potential injury concerns in the pre-season, it is unknown as to whether a formal pre-season competition will ever return.

But there are still pre-season trials, which generally are only given attention by the die-hards and those who are over the cricket and after an early footy fix before the real stuff begins in early March.

Last updated 12 February 2022


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