PANTHER TALES | History of rugby league in Penrith and the Second Division

The game of rugby league in the Penrith area is believed to date back to the early 1910s, not long after the establishment of the Sydney rugby league premiership in 1908 (which over time has evolved into the current National Rugby League (NRL)).

The first teams in the area were under the administration of the Western Suburbs district club, one of the eight teams in the Sydney premiership. The township of Penrith was represented as a club, as well as the adjoining village of Emu Plains. Later teams would form in other nearby towns, including St. Marys, Windsor, Richmond, Riverstone and Blacktown.

Penrith was also represented with other clubs in the more localised Parramatta competition, with its administrative centre closer to where the Western Suburbs district club was based at Ashfield.

A junior system was established for the Penrith region in the 1930s.

In 1945, the Western Suburbs club in the Sydney premiership won the Presidents Cup competition – in that squad were seven players from Penrith junior rugby league clubs.

With the admission of Parramatta to the Sydney premiership in 1947, the Penrith region became more aligned with its neighbour (about 30 kilometres to the east along the Great Western Highway), and had a club in the Parramatta A Grade competition.

In 1957, the Penrith club signed Leo Trevena as a captain-coach. However, it would be on the basis that he was not to be made available for the Parramatta club in the Sydney premiership if requested. Three matches into the season, Parramatta called him up. He refused, and Parramatta imposed a playing ban for Penrith, which was supported by the state governing body.

Also around that time a licenced club was established in Station Street.

In the early 1960s, plans were afoot to create a second tier competition to complement the Sydney premiership. Initially called the Inter-District Competition, Penrith would be one of the ten teams that were admitted, with the competition to commence in 1963 – the other nine teams were Wentworthville, Arncliffe, Liverpool, Bankstown, Kingsford, Ryde-Eastwood, Sydney University, Guildford and Cronulla-Caringbah.

The decision to join the new competition had not been a unanimous one – there were some officials that it would have a negative impact on the Penrith junior system, but others, such as Merv Cartwright, saw it as an important stepping stone to Penrith obtaining full district status, and with that admission to the Sydney premiership.

Their colours were royal blue and white and would play their home games at Penrith Showground. Former Balmain five-eighth Ron Clifford was appointed as captain-coach. The club had also bought a number of other players who had some grade experience in the Sydney premiership, as well as some bright prospects from the country areas.

In the first season, Penrith were one of the front runners in the first half of the season, returning 5 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses in the first nine rounds. However, they could only muster four wins in the second half of the season. Needing victory in the final round against Cronulla-Caringbah, they lost 11-5 and finished fifth (with only the top four teams playing in the finals).

In 1964, the competition was re-branded as the Second Division. Whilst not openly admitted from the NSWRFL officials, there had been enough discussion generated to suggest that a promotion and relegation system may be introduced, similar to the English competition.

This was the year that the Panthers were adopted as their name, with graphic designer Deidre Copeland winning the logo design competition, with a panther leaping through the letter ‘P’. Gone was Ron Clifford and in his place was another former Sydney premiership player in Bill McCall, who was recruited from Parramatta and appointed as captain-coach.

In another important move, the club would shift its home ground to a venue across the road from Penrith Showground, at a place just commonly referred to as Penrith Park.

Penrith would win its first six matches and despite a mid-season slump which mustered just one win in the next five, the club would rally in the second half of the season and finish third on the ladder behind Wentworthville and Ryde-Eastwood, with 12 wins and 6 losses from 18 matches.

In the first week semi-final, Penrith defeated Guildford 15-10 at Ringrose Park, with forward Colin Piper scoring the match winning try with only five minutes remaining. They would advance to the final the following week but would go down to Ryde-Eastwood 17-9.

In the opening rounds of the 1965 season Penrith were based at nearby Jamison Park, hosting three home matches there before returning to Penrith Park in May.

Also in May, the Panthers were invited to participate in the State Cup, a knockout competition involving the 10 Sydney premiership clubs and a select number of other clubs, including two from the Second Division. In a massive upset, the then Second Division front runners knocked off Sydney premiership club Canterbury at Penrith Park. However, they would be knocked out two weeks later against North Sydney.

In the second division premiership, Penrith were the competition leaders at the halfway point, with just the solitary loss after nine matches. However they would get pipped on the minor premiership in the final rounds by Wentworthville and finish second.

In the semi-final the following week Wentworthville crushed Penrith 37-0 at Ringrose Park. But given Penrith’s ladder finish they were given a second chance and faced off against Arncliffe at McCredie Park. Penrith sneaked home 12-9 to qualify for the grand final, where once again they would face off against Wentworthville.

In a one-sided decider Wentworthville recorded a decisive 31-3 victory with Paul Hatton scoring the solitary points for Penrith.

For the 1966 season, Penrith signed two significant recruits – in Tony Brown, a former Australian Test player, and whom would be appointed captain, and also Bob Landers, a goal kicking winger who had been the Sydney premiership’s top point scorer in 1960 and 1961 whilst at Eastern Suburbs.

Also, there had been confirmation from the NSWRFL that the Sydney premiership would be expanded to 12 teams for 1967, with the two new teams to be invited from the Second Division. Cronulla-Sutherland were to be one of the teams, and both Wentworthville and Penrith were vying for the second spot. As history shows Penrith were officially granted the second spot in July.

Meanwhile, in the Second Division, it had been reduced to an eight team competition with Kingsford and Bankstown withdrawing from the competition. At the halfway point, the Panthers were sitting in fourth spot with a three and three record. Weeks later when they were officially given the green light to join the Sydney premiership they had fallen outside the top four but they rallied in the closing rounds of the regular season and finished in third spot, with 8 wins from 13 matches.

In the first week semi-final they defeated Arncliffe at Cumberland Oval and the following week defeated their fellow promotion partner Cronulla-Sutherland to earn a spot in their second straight grand final. Their opponent once again would be Wentworthville.

This time, Penrith erased the pain of the pain of the previous year with a heart stopping 2 point victory. Wentworthville led 7-3 at half time but three penalty conversions to Bob Landers in the second half saw the Panthers win the Bill Buckley Shield.

As a side note, Landers was one of 9 starting players that would form part of the first grade squad for Penrith’s debut year in the Sydney premiership in 1967, including former Kangaroo Tony Brown who would lead the Panthers out in their first ever premiership match on 2 April 1967.

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