PANTHER TALES | Promotion to the First Division

The Inter District Competition was established by the then New South Wales Rugby Football League (NSWRFL) in 1963, as a second tier below the Sydney premiership which had been established in 1908.

Just like the Sydney premiership, a total of ten teams were established, with Penrith being one of them. Geographically, it was seen as an outward push towards the edges of Sydney, with other teams established in places such as Hornsby, Liverpool and Cronulla, however, other teams were within the older parts of the city, and in some instances in close proximity to premiership clubs, such as Arncliffe (St. George), Kingsford (South Sydney) and Wentworthville (Parramatta). It also saw the return of the University club, who had been in the Sydney premiership from 1920 to 1937.

At the time, the NSWRFL had stated that all ten teams had claims to eventually becoming worthy of admission to an expanded Sydney premiership in the future.

In 1964, the competition had been rebranded as the Second Division – whilst not confirmed by the governing body, it had been said by others that it was paving the way perhaps for the establishment of a 20 team, 2 tiered competition, with promotion and relegation similar to the English competition.

In 1966, the NSWRFL had announced that there would be an expanded twelve team competition for the 1967 season – with two teams from the Second Division to be invited.

In April, a number of Second Division clubs, including Penrith, had presented its case to the NSWRFL – the boundaries which would form their junior league, the potential of the junior league to create future players of first grade standard, availability of grounds and the ability to field a third grade team, alongside first grade and reserve grade teams.

Penrith had also put forward plans to upgrade their current home ground at Penrith Park, which was to have a capacity of 24,000 and be floodlit for night games.

However, in June a special committee had voted to promote Cronulla and Wentworthville to the expanded Sydney premiership, and would be expected to be endorsed by the full NSWRFL committee – this 31 member committee included two delegates from each of the ten premiership clubs, vice presidents, country rugby league officials and referees delegates.

The Penrith officials, led by club secretary Merv Cartwright, had vowed to use the time up to the formal vote in early July to convince members of the NSWRFL committee that Penrith were worthy of one of the two expansion spots. In Penrith’s favour was that it had established themselves as one of the stronger clubs in the Second Division, although in the three years to the end of the 1965 season, their best result was as runners up to Wentworthville in 1965. But it had also defeated Canterbury in the 1965 State Cup knockout tournament.

Another crucial advantage to Penrith was geography – it was located a considerable distance from Sydney compared to other Second Division clubs, including Wentworthville, and with the urban sprawl heading west towards the Blue Mountains, Penrith was to evolve from a country town to a major centre. It was this geographical advantage that was Penrith’s ace in the pack when putting their case forward to the NSWRFL committee.

In the committee meeting on 4 July, Cronulla had been unanimously voted in.

The major power brokers in the NSWRFL, including the president Bill Buckley and two of the vice presidents had moved for Wentworthville to be admitted. What happened next was seen purely as self interest, but was of advantage to the Penrith bid.

Before the delegates could put forward their votes, Parramatta president Jack Argent addressed the committee, and had heavily emphasised the value of Penrith being chosen instead of Wentworthville. The chief motivation of this support was on the basis that a Wentworthville club in the Sydney premiership would take a considerable amount of the western Sydney area that was currently within the Parramatta junior league. Penrith would share a boundary with Parramatta, but would be further west. Wentworthville was also in close proximity to Parramatta, being just five kilometres further up the Great Western Highway from Parramatta, whilst Penrith was another 30 kilometres to the west. It would further expand the reach of the Sydney premiership.

Argent and another vice president, Jack Duckworth, had moved to put forward an amendment that Penrith, and not Wentworthville, be promoted.

The amended resolution was carried 19-12, and Penrith along with Cronulla would be part of the expanded Sydney premiership.

Argent’s role in Penrith’s successful bid cannot be undersold, and there and then gave birth to a western Sydney derby that marked 100 premiership matches in 2020.

As a side note, Wentworthville would continue to apply in later seasons to be part of a further expanded competition, with no success.

Meanwhile, Penrith went straight to work to prepare for the 1967 season, however, there was still the matter of the Second Division season to be completed – Penrith would qualify for the final, against Wentworthville no less, and won the premiership with a 9-7 victory.

In the Second Division, Penrith had worn blue and white. However, Cronulla had already registered similar colours with the NSWRFL, and Canterbury and Newtown had similar schemes. Therefore, Penrith were forced to change their colours.

Brown was agreed to as the primary colour, with a choice between gold and white as the secondary colour. White won out, and it was brown and white that was registered with the NSWRFL. And soon after, the tag of chocolate soldiers was also born.

The club had adopted the panther as the emblem back in 1964. It consisted of a red panther leaping through a “P”, with blue and white trimmings to denote the club’s Second Division days.

Work also got underway on upgrading Penrith Park – a new western grandstand would be constructed and a new playing surface prepared.

In order to field a competitive team in the Second Division, Penrith had already recruited a number of players such as ex-Kangaroo Tony Brown and goal kicking winger Bob Landers, as well as a number of other players that had grade experience in the Sydney premiership. A number of these players would stay on to be part of the first grade squad in 1967, and was further supplemented by new signings, both from the Sydney competition but also from the country.

Penrith had also confirmed that Leo Trevena, a former player at Western Suburbs that had been playing and then coaching in the Penrith area since 1957, would be the inaugural coach.

Penrith’s location gave the club one key advantage over the other 11 teams – it was part of Sydney, but was still in many ways a country town, which was particularly of benefit to the country recruits who did not feel comfortable with the city lifestyle.

Penrith were as prepared as they could be for the upcoming challenge of the week in, week out grind of the Sydney premiership.

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