The Penrith Panthers of 2022 will run onto Accor Stadium on Sunday night trying to create their own slice of club history, but there are a select few who have been there and done it before.
The teams of 1991 and 2003 became history makers at Penrith, while the 2021 side broke an 18-year Premiership drought, setting up many of the players in that side to be on the verge of winning back-to-back Premiership rings on Sunday night.
Going from pretenders to Premiers
The front page of the Weekender on Friday, September 20 1991 said it all – ‘bound for glory’. Inside, another headline read ‘Panthers to win’.
It was a Grand Final Penrith was always destined to claim.
After going down to the Raiders in 1990, Penrith walked onto the Sydney Football Stadium pitch a much more mature looking team than the one that tasted heartbreak on the very same turf 12 months earlier.
So many things went against Penrith in the big one – Mark Geyer was sent to the sin bin, the Raiders scored a try off a controversial refereeing decision, and Mal Meninga was having a stellar game.
At half-time, with his side down 12-6, Penrith coach Phil Gould delivered an almighty spray to his players. Rumour has it the speech finished with the words: “Are you going to be losers?”
The second half was terrific from Penrith, but with 10 minutes to go, the scores were locked at 12-all and it was anyone’s game.
Then, the man they call Brandy stepped in.
Greg Alexander potted a 38 metre field goal that would give Penrith a 13-12 lead and the advantage heading into the final stages of the game.
The Panthers built pressure and the rest is history – the forced line drop-out, the short restart, the Geyer run, the Simmons try – magic. Alexander confirmed victory with a sideline conversion that gave the Panthers an unassailable 19-12 lead.
“They worked really hard for that – right from the Grand Final day the previous year,” Gould told the Weekender years later.
“It was a wonderful day for the club, it was a wonderful day for the city and it really put Penrith on the map.”
Back at Panthers Leagues Club, the party was epic.
A huge blow-up Panther had guarded the club for much of the week, welcoming fans on Grand Final day who watched the match on 55 screens throughout the club. A Grand Final Disco was held at Reactor One.
One of the big talking points out of the Grand Final was the awarding of the Clive Churchill Medal to Canberra’s Bradley Clyde. Royce Simmons would tell the Weekender years later who he believed should have been handed the prestigious prize that day.
“Greg Alexander was the player of the match. His kicking game was outstanding and his leadership was fantastic,” Simmons said.
Finally, another title heads west
Penrith’s 18-6 Grand Final triumph over the Sydney Roosters on October 5, 2003 was one of the most magical days in club history.
Despite finishing the regular season as Minor Premiers, Penrith still went into the decider against the Roosters as underdogs.
It was no surprise, perhaps, given this Penrith side had finished last just two years earlier, and didn’t make the Finals in 2002. Many simply didn’t believe the Panthers had what it took.
But in front of a crowd of 81,166 at a very wet Telstra Stadium, the ‘men in black’ were simply superb and produced memories that will last a lifetime.
The game – which is regarded by many as one of the greatest rugby league Grand Finals in history – produced highlight after highlight, with Scott Sattler’s remarkable try-saving cover tackle on Roosters winger Todd Byrne still talked about to this day. Penrith winger Luke Rooney won the hearts of many on the back of his two-try performance, while eventual Clive Churchill Medallist Luke Priddis not only set up two tries that evening but bagged one himself in an heroic effort in sluggish conditions.
Fan favourite Ryan Girdler, who limped off injured in the second half, summed up the enormity of the occasion on behalf of all Panthers players and supporters.
“We’ve been here through the bad times, and that’s what makes it so special,” he said.
Interviewed by Channel Nine’s Andrew Voss as the siren sounded in the background, coach John Lang declared: “I just hope I don’t wake up tomorrow and it’s still Sunday”.
Penrith partied for days following the club’s second Grand Final win, and thousands turned out on November 28 to celebrate one last time with a victory parade through the city’s streets, before the off-season officially began.
Incredible win inspires locked down city
A Stephen Crichton intercept 14 minutes from full-time will forever be remembered as the moment that decided the 2021 Grand Final and secured Penrith’s third Premiership.
The Panthers won 14-12 but not before a late scare with South Sydney halfback Adam Reynolds missing a sideline conversion four minutes from full-time that would have levelled the scores.
It was a Grand Final for the ages – one decided on defence in a year where blowout scorelines and attack dominated the NRL season.
Penrith’s kicking game was superb – both Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai producing gamebreaking moments with their boots that helped determine the outcome.
Cleary was named the Clive Churchill Medallist for best player on ground. In an emotional moment, it was presented by his father and coach Ivan.
With his busted shoulder in tow, Cleary bounced back from missing a crucial tackle that resulted in Souths’ first try to win an ongoing battle with Cody Walker and produce some brilliant defensive moments when it mattered most.
It was a Grand Final that will be remembered more for being the finale of an incredible three weeks for the winning team. Penrith scored just five tries in their last three matches of the season but still managed to claim the title.
There were incredible scenes of emotion at full-time as the Panthers celebrated a hard fought victory over a newfound arch rival.
While the Panthers celebrated in front of 39,322 fans at Suncorp Stadium, back home in Penrith the streets erupted despite the COVID lockdown – hundreds of cars lining Mulgoa Road with horns blaring to mark the Premiership success.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Breaking News Reporter. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations. In 2023, he was named Editor of the Year at the Mumbrella Publish Awards.