No matter who wins, tonight’s NRL grand final between the Penrith Panthers and the South Sydney Rabbitohs will be special for a lot of reasons.
It is the first grand final since 2015 without either the Melbourne Storm or the Sydney Roosters, two heavyweights of the modern game.
It is the first to be played in Queensland, and is set to be followed by the announcement of the NRL’s first expansion team since the Gold Coast Titans in 2007.
For a lot of people in Western Sydney, though, a Panthers victory would mean much more than that.
If you live in the western suburbs of Sydney, chances are you have had a pretty shocking last 18 months.
Police helicopters have been circling endlessly over Auburn and Granville. Police have fined people for sitting in their cars to be close to their loved ones’ funerals.
As photos of Bondi Beach parties do the rounds on social media, politicians have singled out “people from other backgrounds” in suburbs like Fairfield and Bankstown.
One of the few bright spots in all this has been the Panthers’ unbelievable run of success. Since the start of the 2020 season, the Panthers have won 43 matches, drawn one, and lost six. It is the sort of record kids rack up playing FIFA 21 on “easy” mode.
Just as important, though, has been the pride and passion for Western Sydney that the Panthers have shown every step of the way. This is not a team of superstar imports. The club did not buy its way to success.
It is a team led by locals who came up together — with deep roots in the community — and who represent the area every chance they get.
Players like Jarome Luai, Brian To’o and Stephen Crichton wear their Mount Druitt and St Marys roots on their sleeves. To’o sometimes celebrates tries with a ‘Mounty Bop’, the dance move made famous globally by drill crew and fellow Mount Druitt locals ONEFOUR.
In State of Origin camp earlier this year, Luai and To’o made a name for themselves by blasting ONEFOUR from a portable boombox that went with them everywhere (ONEFOUR have returned the favour: Panthers merchandise has started appearing in their music videos).
The bond the young Panthers share comes through in the joy they show around each other, on and off the field. In an era where NRL players are encouraged to be robotic in public, Panthers players are like the rowdy kids at the back of the school bus.
They relentlessly prank each other in media interviews, sing Boyz II Men hits, dance through training sessions and celebrate every try like it is a grand final-winning four-pointer.
Some of that joy also has roots in how hard it was for many of them to make it this far.
Moses Leota used to turn up to training covered in dried concrete after working all day at a building site, living in a caravan and sending money home to family in New Zealand.
To’o would back up at training from 3:00am shifts at a warehouse. Luai’s father Martin missed his NRL debut and the birth of his son’s first child after an injury, financial desperation and a stint in jail for drug trafficking.
Now that the Panthers players have found success, the first thing many of them did with their winnings was give back to their families.
To’o used his first NRL pay cheque to buy a headstone for his sister Danielle, who died of cancer in 2008. He used his State of Origin bonus to help his parents put down a deposit on a house.
Luai is living at home until he helps his mum pay off the mortgage. Last year, Leota bought his mum a car.
Faith has also played a massive role. Crichton’s father Va’a is a pastor at his local church in Rooty Hill. For the last few years, Crichton, To’o, Luai and Spencer Leniu have led a group of Panthers players in post-match prayers on the field.
Unable to attend church services in lockdown, many of the Panthers have taken up Bible studies.
Panthers rewarded for nurturing talent
Any time the Panthers have tasted success in their 54 years as a NSWRL/NRL club, it has come from the grassroots.
After joining the NSWRL in 1967, Penrith went 17 years before posting a winning season.
The side that won their first premiership against the Canberra Raiders in 1991 was led by a group of brilliant young talents — Mark Geyer, Greg Alexander, Brad Fittler — who had come up through the local junior system.
Fittler, then 19, famously made one of the all-time try-saving tackles on the legendary Mal Meninga.
The night the Penrith players were presented with their premiership blazers during the 1992 season, Greg’s younger brother Ben — a Panther himself — died in a car crash. It shattered the club, the players, and the people of Penrith.
It was not until 2003 that Penrith won its second first-grade premiership. In just two years, coach John Lang took the Panthers from the wooden spoon to their second title.
Again, local products like Craig Gower, Luke Rooney and Luke Lewis led the way, along with fan-favourite fullback Rhys Wesser and Lang’s son Martin, who played prop.
Their grand final win over a heavily favoured Sydney Roosters team stacked with talent (and captained by Fittler) produced a moment eerily similar to Fittler’s tackle on Meninga, when bulky lock Scott Sattler ran down Roosters winger Todd Byrne to save a try and turn the match.
Eighteen years later, the Panthers are winners again. Another father-son duo, coach Ivan Cleary and halfback Nathan, have led the Panthers to the brink of their third premiership in the club’s history.
They came heartbreakingly close during last year’s grand final, but were blown away in the first half by a ruthless Storm outfit bursting with big-match experience.
After that loss, footage posted on a Melbourne player’s Instagram story showed Storm players mocking the Penrith players who grew up in Mount Druitt. Before their preliminary final against the Storm last week, some of the Panthers circulated the video among themselves as a reminder.
It had the desired effect. Following an upset loss to the Rabbitohs in their qualifying final and a grinding win over Parramatta a week later, the Panthers went into the preliminary final as underdogs.
Eighty minutes later, they had payback against the Storm.
Whether or not they win tonight, this Panthers outfit has been the feel-good story Western Sydney needs right now — one that all the police helicopters in the world could not take away.