Since winning the NRL in 2003 the Penrith Panthers have lost a host of their players to other clubs; retirement and overseas deals. It seemed each year following ’03 the Panthers got worse; then they long standing players well out of form but unwilling to walk away.
It was a tough situation and even with the entry of Matt Elliott last year, there was still no quick fix. But after nearly 2 seasons, Elliott and the team at Penrith have started unearthing the talent, building confidence and finally getting the old heads to pull their weight. Another big factor is Petero Civoniceva; many feeling he may use the Panthers as a retirement home, but the big bopper has done quite the opposite and remains the key to the next generation of success at Penrith.
The Panthers have come to life in recent weeks with the injection of youngsters Coote and Graham.
The Panthers have always had success bringing young players through. Try Greg Alexander, Brad Fittler and Craig Gower for size as playmakers who arrived in first grade as teenagers. But there have been plenty of others – and there will be even more in the future, thanks to the manner in which the club has cornered its junior market.
Three of the new breed will be in action again tonight, when Wade Graham and Masada Iosefa, playing their fourth first-grade games, and Lachlan Coote, in his third, take the field against Newcastle at CUA Stadium. The vast majority of football fans have only become aware of them over the past few weeks, but the club has overseen their development for many years.
Penrith have had various development structures but none as detailed and efficient as the one chief executive Mick Leary put into place five years ago. Now the club has a computer data base that includes regularly updated information on every junior player in the district from the age of 12 to 17, overseen by development officer Jim Jones and co-ordinated by well-known local league identity Theo Kubica.
How accurate a call can you make on the chances of a 12-year-old eventually playing first grade? Very accurate, it seems.
“I remember being in the 12s development group and they said to us: ‘Probably only three of you will make it’,” said 20-year-old hooker Iosefa. “Four of us – Michael Jennings, Joseph Paulo, Tim Grant and myself – have made it from that group.”
Iosefa’s determined attitude is the type the club seeks. It’s not just ability the Panthers look for in their youngsters, but desire and a willingness to do the work needed to improve.
“I made the 13s squad as well, but then I missed out on the 14s,” Iosefa said. “That kind of drove me because my mates were still in the squad. I really put my head down and worked hard for the next 12 months. I got back in for the 15s and ended up being captain.”
Penrith has a huge junior league, with about 8000 registered players. In the ages on which the club concentrates, they have to keep track of about 3000 players. They do that with the help of eight appointed selectors who watch games all day on Saturdays and Sundays and then file reports on the progress of players to Kubica. Between them, the group sees every one of the children tracked play every two to three weeks.
The selectors meet Jones and Kubica every month to pore over computer printouts produced by Kubica and discuss the progress of players. The more promising the player, the more closely he is tracked. The club establishes relationships with the families of the best players, who are included in the age squads. They regularly train together and play games against squads representing other districts.
Younger players are put on scholarships, which include the club covering travel and accommodation costs that enable them to compete at carnivals, plus other expenses. The best are contracted from the age of about 15.
“It’s all about talent identification,” Jones said. “If a selector kept coming up with duds, we’d have to let him go, but the people we’ve got here at the moment all have a good eye for talent. But it’s not just about a player’s ability. You can pick the best players out but then you’ve got to find out if they want to succeed. Sometimes you get kids who say they’ll turn up, but hardly ever do. Eventually, you’ve got to move on.
“The ones you’re looking for are the ones who turn out like Greg Waddell. He’s one of our Toyota Cup players, and he’s recovering from a knee reconstruction. I was locking up the other night and there was some noise coming from the gym. I was wondering: ‘Who’s that?’ I looked inside and it was Greg, still pumping iron.”
The day the process becomes complete, for the special players who are good enough to go all the way, is when they are told they have been picked to play in first grade. Fullback Coote remembers that day like it was yesterday, which he should, since it was only a bit over two weeks ago.
“All the squad was out on the field at training and Matty [Matthew Elliott, the Penrith coach] called everyone together and said: ‘There’s a new member in the side this week – Lachlan Coote’. Everyone clapped. I couldn’t get the smile off my face. I was heaps happy.”
Elliott said he learned by watching Brisbane develop as a club that the surest way to succeed was by concentrating on junior players.
“The Broncos are the best model of a club in the last 20 years, and that’s what they did,” Elliott said. “Our juniors are our greatest strength at Penrith.”
It is just a matter of time before more Penrith teenagers break into first grade. Despite losing Graham, Coote and Iosefa to first grade recently, the club’s Toyota Cup side has kept winning to stay on top of the table.
As Graham said of himself and the other two: “We’re not the lone rangers.”
Smells like teen spirit
Some Penrith players who have made first-grade debuts for the club as teenagers:THE PASTGreg Alexander