Rugby league kicked off in Australia in 1908, and within a few years, it was being played in Penrith, then a small rural town in the shadows of the Blue Mountains. By the 1950s, Penrith were a powerhouse within the Parramatta junior rugby league, and a number of other towns and villages close to Penrith also had teams.
In the early 1960s, there were plans put into place to create divisional football, similar to the system in England. The existing 10 teams were branded the first division, with a 10 team new second division created. One of these teams in the second division was a team from Penrith. Their colours were blue and white, and had adopted the Panthers logo. By 1965, they had become one of the top teams in the second division. The year before, it competed in the knockout State Cup competition with the first division teams, defeating Canterbury in the first round.
With the Sydney premiership planning to expand to 12 teams for the 1967 season, two teams from the second division were to be chosen. After some heavy lobbying from Penrith, particularly by club secretary Merv Cartwright, they were granted admission in July 1966.
Captained by former Australian five-eighth Tony Brown and coached by Leo Trevana, who had been involved with rugby league in the Penrith area since the mid-1950s, the Panthers played their first premiership match against Canterbury at Belmore Oval on 2 April. Canterbury won 15-12, but the Panthers led during the second half, and only poor goal kicking denied a first up win. Halfback Laurie Fagan scored the club’s first ever try.
However, the new boys would only have to wait one more week to record their maiden premiership victory, defeating Newtown in what was also their first match at Penrith Park. Two weeks later, the all-conquering St. George made the journey to Penrith, and were thrashed 24-12 by the new boys in brown and white – to this day, it is still considered to be one of the club’s finest ever moments.
Their debut season would provide modest returns, with 5 wins and 2 draws from 22 matches, and finishing second last. Winger Bob Landers was the top point scorer with 88 points, and shared the top try scorer list with centre Dave Applebee, with 8 tries each.
Before the start of their second season, Penrith had already won their first title, winning the pre-season competition by defeating Newtown at the final. However, it did not translate to success in the premiership, finishing eighth.
The Panthers had gained the moniker of “the chocolate soldiers”. Its origin has two conflicting sources. One of them is from an article by renowned rugby league commentator Frank Hyde when he said that these chocolate soldiers from out west don’t melt. The second one is from a wag in the crowd who made the comment of chocolate soldiers when he saw the club officials resplendent in their brown jackets at the official opening of Penrith Park in 1967.
In what was initially an endearing term, it soon became one of ridicule. Due to a number of reasons, Penrith would spend the late 1960s to the early 1980s in the wilderness, perennially being one of the bottom placed teams. It finished with the dreaded wooden spoon (finishing last) twice in 1973 and 1980.
Whilst the area was able to produce players who could compete in the Sydney premiership, that would not be enough, and recruited players from other clubs. Its geographical isolation as an outpost from the rest of the Sydney premiership made it difficult. The players that did sign on with Penrith would generally be either veterans with only a few years left, or those who were discards from other clubs. The Panthers were competitive enough on a regular basis, however, were not able to win on a regular basis.
In the early 1970s, the club embarked on a trip to South Africa, who at that time were isolated from the international sporting world due to apartheid policies. It was hoping to recruit talented rugby union players willing to convert to rugby league. They returned with two players, both of whom only stayed at the club for a short while, even though both played first grade. Whilst they had been targeting English players since their promotion, they were able to finally land two big name signings – Test hooker Mike Stephenson and a talented ball playing forward named Bill Ashurst.
In 1974, they qualified for the final in the inaugural Amco Cup, a mid-week knockout competition which involved all the Sydney premiership teams as well as other regional teams from Australia and New Zealand. However, it would lose to Western Division in that match.
The introduction of the 13 import rule (no more than 13 players from another area at the same time) in 1975 was also a disadvantage to Penrith. It forced the Panthers to blood more local juniors, whom were not ready for first grade, which hence impacted on the club’s competitiveness.
A rare bright spot during the 1970s was the club’s third grade (President’s Cup) winning the premiership in 1978. It provided some hope that Penrith’s fortunes would soon change for the better.
The darkest moment of the decade would occur in 1978 when rookie forward John Farragher broke his neck in a scrum versus Newtown, which would leave him as a paraplegic.
Heading into the 1980s, there would be continued glimpses of brilliance but sustained long term success continued to elude the Panthers.
1984 is considered to be a watershed year for the club. With former player Tim Sheens as coach and the introduction of the prodigiously talented teenager Greg Alexander, it awoke from its slumber which was punctuated by a then club record six match winning streak mid-season. However, it fell agonisingly short of a maiden finals appearance, losing in the final round against the Eels at Penrith Park.
It would though create a springboard for the 1985 season, with Penrith finally breaking through for a debut semi finals appearance, although it was earnt via a heart stopping 10-7 extra time win against Manly in a mid-week playoff for fifth spot. They would meet Parramatta at the iconic Sydney Cricket Ground in the first week of the finals, however, at full time were left licking their wounds after being subjected to a 38-6 hiding.
Further progression was stunted in the following years, including a losing the fifth spot playoff match in 1988. It would return to the finals in 1989, courtesy of finishing at a then all-time high second spot on the ladder, however, they would be bundled out in the second week through two straight losses.
1990 saw a return to the finals, winning their first ever finals match by defeating Brisbane in the first week. The following week, a late penalty conversion allowed Penrith to force a 12-all draw against Canberra in regular time, but then scored three tries in extra time to ultimately thump the Raiders and more importantly qualify for their first ever grand final appearance. The two teams would meet again 2 weeks later on the big day, but the Raiders, who were defending premiers, proved too good for the Panthers, running out 18-14 victors.
That match would mark the last appearance of the “chocolate soldiers”, with the Panthers returning in 1991 with a bold new look – predominantly black, with white, red, green and yellow stripes. The new jersey would soon earn the club a new tag, that of the “licorice allsorts”, after the popular confection.
Driven by the pain of 1990, Penrith dominated the competition, finishing with their first ever minor premiership. They held off a spirited North Sydney in a very tense semi final to power through to their second straight grand final appearance. Their opponents again would be Canberra.
The Panthers scored the first try, but trailed 12-6 at half time. Midway through the second half, Penrith scored the equaliser, and soon after hit the lead with Greg Alexander striking a field goal to edge ahead 13-12. In the dying minutes, Canberra tried a short drop out, which was latched on by Mark Geyer, one of the many local juniors in the team that day, who then passed it to Royce Simmons, club captain for much of the 1980s and playing his 233rd and last match for the Panthers, who crossed over in the corner. Alexander’s conversion from the sideline made it a 19-12 lead with only minutes remaining. The iconic Winfield Cup trophy would be lifted by Alexander, and masterminded by coach Phil Gould – a talented forward who was made Penrith’s youngest captain in 1976, however had left the club in 1979, only to return in 1990 as the new coach.
Heartbreak would engulf the club the following year, with the tragic death of Greg Alexander’s younger brother Ben in a car accident midway through the season. In the aftermath, the game seemed secondary to the players, but they played on. Remarkably the Panthers were still in a position until very late in the season to have a chance to defend their title by being in the top five, but fell away in the final month to finish ninth.
Heading into the mid 1990s, Penrith were a shadow of their former glory. At the end of 1994, Greg Alexander left Penrith to go to new expansion team Auckland. Other players from the glory days had either retired or moved on as well. Phil Gould also left the club, replaced by Royce Simmons.
1995 would see a rugby league civil war break out, with the emergence of the rebel breakaway competition known as Super League in April. It soon became a case of who was staying loyal with the governing body (the ARL), and who was siding with Super League. In May, Penrith became the eighth premiership club to sign with Super League, with the justification that it had a better chance of longer term survival through that competition. Given that players had individually signed contracts with either party, the end of 1995 saw the departure of Brad Fittler, who had chosen to remain loyal – he was a member of the 1991 premiership winning team who by 1995 was captain not only of the Panthers, but also for New South Wales and Australia.
A court ruling at the start of 1996 that prevented the start of the Super League season saw perhaps the club’s lowest point – in the opening round of the 1996 season, in an act of solidarity with its fellow Super League clubs, it chose to forfeit the opening round match, handing the two premiership points to Parramatta without a ball being kicked. They would return to play the remaining 21 regular season matches, but like previous seasons, would finish well outside the finals calculations.
1997 would see the first and only season of the 10 team Super League competition, after an appeal was won in October 1996. It also saw the return of Greg Alexander to the club. Another welcome return was finals football, with Penrith ultimately being eliminated in the second week.
Peace was struck between the two feuding parties at the end of 1997, with the two competitions coming together to create the National Rugby League (NRL) for the 1998 season.
One of the conditions of the peace agreement was that the number of clubs had to be reduced to 14 for the start of the 2000 season. For the next two years, the Panthers were being assessed against other clubs through criteria such as crowds, sponsorship and on-field success. Penrith’s intention was to stand alone, but it was viewed as one of the weaker clubs vying for stand alone status. 1999 saw a competitive Panthers in that it was in the top 8 for the first half of the season, before falling gradually outside of it. It had entered informal discussions with Parramatta about the possibility of a merger, however in October it had been confirmed that they had made the cut, being the 14th ranked team.
As part of the new 14 team competition for the 2000 season, the Panthers saw it as a rebirth (of sorts), with a fresh new jersey and club emblem. It also saw a change in fortunes, with Penrith qualifying for the finals in a united competition for the first time since 1991. But in an all familiar tale, they were eliminated by the second week courtesy of two consecutive losses.
A dramatic dip in 2001 saw Penrith get its third wooden spoon. At seasons end, Simmons was sacked after seven and bit seasons as coach, and replaced by former Sharks coach John Lang.
The main positive that came out of the 2002 season was that the Panthers did not finish last.
2003 started slowly, and were second last after four rounds with one win and three losses. However, it then embarked on a club record eight straight wins, which contributed towards their ascension up the ladder, and were competition leaders after 18 rounds – and for the first time since 1991. Penrith were setting the premiership alight with their sparkling attack, and whilst they were not a tight defensive unit, they generally had the confidence that they could outscore their opponents each week. In September, they were crowned minor premiers for the second time when they defeated Parramatta at Penrith Stadium in the final premiership round.
After over powering Brisbane in the qualifying final and accounting for the New Zealand Warriors in the preliminary final, the Panthers had made their third grand final. Despite being minor premiers, they entered the showdown as rank outsiders against the Sydney Roosters, whom had made 2 of the 3 previous grand finals.
On a wet night in early October, the two teams faced off in a modern day classic. Penrith held a 6-0 lead at half time, and soon after the resumption the Roosters tied it up. Then came the turning point – lock forward Scott Sattler timed his run perfectly to perform a cover tackle on a seemingly run away Roosters winger and bundled him into touch. It lifted the Panthers, resuming their lead 12-6 soon after and then winger Luke Rooney scoring in the corner with minutes remaining to seal the 18-6 victory, with Penrith securing their second premiership. Just like 1991, they had been led by a local junior playing in the halfback position – this time it was Craig Gower. He was by all accounts the Dally M medal winner that year, however, the ceremony did not take place due to an industrial dispute.
It had capped off a remarkable turn of events – only two years before they were the worst team in the NRL, now they were the best.
Penrith gave themselves every chance to defend their title in 2004, finishing in the top four and making the preliminary final. However, the Panthers would be no match for the Bulldogs in the second half and would be denied a second consecutive grand final appearance.
A late season surge in 2005 saw them fall just short of a third straight finals appearance. In 2006, a 17 man “Team of Legends” was named to commemorate the club’s 40th season since their promotion.
The Panthers had seemingly gone full circle in 2007 when it earned its fourth wooden spoon. Whilst the following two seasons would see an improvement in results, late season fade outs would see the Panthers fall away after being in the top 8 at the midway point in both 2008 and 2009.
Finishing second on the ladder in 2010, Penrith fell out the finals back door by losing both the qualifying final in week 1 and then semi final in week 2.
By 2011, the Panthers had reportedly lost their way. They were in a perilous state financially and also had a small percentage of local juniors and locally developed players in the NRL squad. Phil Gould returned to the club again, this time being appointed the general manager of football operation and tasked with the job of fixing the club.
Whilst the following few seasons would be lean in terms of results, a rebuild had commenced. Improvements had started showing in 2013, when the Under 20s team, stacked with local juniors, won the premiership.
A number of the players from this squad would make their NRL debuts in 2014. That season, the Panthers ended a four year absence from finals football. It also won its first finals match since 2004 with a stirring one point win over the first placed Roosters in the qualifying final, courtesy of a Jamie Soward field goal with only seconds remaining in regulation time. It propelled them to a preliminary final, but just like 2004 would lose to the Bulldogs, albeit this time in a much tighter contest.
Whilst it would be one step forward, two steps back in 2015 for the NRL team, the Under 20s won their second title in three years, with yet again another wave of players making their NRL debuts in 2016.
2016 was the Panthers 50th in the top grade. At season’s end was the naming of the four inaugural “Hall of Fame” entrants – Grahame Moran, Royce Simmons, Greg Alexander and Craig Gower. On the field, it qualified for the finals, winning the first week elimination final before losing in the week 2 semi final.
The following two seasons have seen eerily similar results, making the top eight but losing the semi final. However, the path to the finals in these two years were different – in 2017, the Panthers had only won 2 of their first 9 before embarking on a mid season surge and making the eight. In 2018, they were entrenched in the eight all year, but it was the manner of their victories, giving up a number of big leads before running down their opponents in the second half.
Heading into 2019, the club’s “premiership window” is still wide open.