They say there is no substitute for experience but try telling that to Penrith, who have produced some outstanding young players that are sure to be part of their ranks for years to come. This has come as a result of developing them through the club at junior level, in the Holden Cup, and then bringing them into first grade football when the times right.
The return has been another finals appearance for the Panthers, driven by calm heads on young shoulders, where most had written them off this year due to their inexperience. The challenge ahead for Phil Gould and Brian Fletcher is to retain these talents by tying them to longer-term deals. As Gould says himself, it is “an investment in the future.”
The Panthers’ Young Guns
Nathan Cleary’s rise has been so prolific that, at the age of 19, he’s already been touted as a future Penrith skipper, the “Johnathan Thurston of Penrith”, a future half-back for New South Wales, and the “greatest teenage NRL player of all time” among many other grand statements.
He first came onto the scene at 14-years-old, playing for the Penrith Brothers after returning from Auckland. In 2015 and 2016 he played for the Panthers under 20’s Holden Cup Side.
Moving well out of the shadow of his father, Wests Tigers coach Ivan Cleary, Cleary junior has played 25 out of the 26 regular season games this year and has been instrumental in leading the Panthers to the finals.
Cleary has great vision and composure, having shown he can work both sides of the field for opportunities. He also knows how to lead a team on the field, just like any great half-back should. He’s scored 11 tries this season, either scoring or assisting a try in two-thirds of his appearances. He has also kicked 91 goals with an accuracy of 90% to become the NRL’s leading point scorer this season with a tally of 226. Adding up all of these elements is phenomenal when you consider he is essentially a rookie in his second full season of first grade football.
Reports out of Penrith are that the Panthers are looking to lock him in to a deal until 2024, reportedly worth $1m per year. Panthers General Manager, Gould, admits it is a “dangerous move” to contract him for such a long period, as three or four-year contracts are considered long-term in the NRL. However, he is wary of another club doing a “Ben Hunt” on the Panthers, after the Broncos’ youth product was poached by the Dragons
“He’s a big a part of the future so I guess it’s about protecting an investment already made and making sure the club has a franchise player for a long period of time,” said Gould.
Keeping him for the future has become even more important due to the uncertain future of halves partner Matt Moylan. A leader on the field is required, as is someone who is able to run the plays in Moylan’s absence. Moylan’s potential replacement for next season, Tyrone May, could form an exciting halves partnership with Clearly for 2018.
Coach Anthony Griffin rates Dylan Edwards as ‘one of the hardest trainers and most dedicated kids’ he has come across at the Panthers. He’s another graduate of the Penrith development system, having come over to the club in 2013. In 2015 and 2016 he played for the under-20s at fullback and then went on to make his first-grade debut midway through last season.
The versatile youngster moved into the fullback role for the majority of this season after Moylan went to stand-off. The results have been highly encouraging, his heavy work rate earning an average of 180 metres per game and nine line breaks to go with five try assists. He makes, on average, less than one missed tackle, and is calm under the high ball, with little errors in his game so far.
Edwards is contracted till the end of the 2018 season and the Panthers are looking to re-sign him for beyond that period after becoming a key figure in a short period of time. Moylan’s potential defection for next season could leave the fullback position to be claimed by Edwards. Such is his commitment and dedication to his football, that a grade two medial tear in his knee, that he suffered in round 25 against the Dragons, did not stop him from turning out for the Panthers against Manly in his first finals match.
21-year-old Tyrone May completes the trio in the backs after making his way up from playing junior football in Penrith District Rugby League and for the Panthers Holden Cup side through 2015 and 2016.
His work ethic is described as being “insane” and his form on the field has been exciting since he made his debut in round 19 against the Warriors. While he’s only played eight games, the Panthers have gotten a glimpse of things to come as he has been very busy since replacing Moylan at five-eighth.
Five tries, five line breaks, one try assist and two line break assists show he knows how to create points. He is also very active on the field, committing no less than an average of 20 tackles per game. His partnership with under 20’s teammate Cleary has been dynamite for the Panthers as they reeled off eight wins in a row towards the tail end of the season.
He is also off-contract at the end of 2018 and is another reason for Moylan’s status to come under question, as the Panthers seem to have found a more than suitable replacement. The club would do very well to keep the faith in him at this stage by offering an extension in order to form a potent backs combination. His relationship with Cleary is also more than useful in context. Given his larger frame for a 95kg, 189cm five-eighth, it would also not be surprising to see May go into the second row at some stage or elsewhere in the side.
Investing in the Future
Penrith will be posting a loss of $5m for their current financial end, primarily from their significant spending on junior rugby league in the area. Fletcher echoes Gould’s comments when he calls it “an investment” and that their “core business is rugby league.” He claims that the club would rather lose money if it meant growing the game amongst the children of Penrith.
The likes of Cleary, Edwards and May show that spending time, money and resources at a junior level, will pay off when the players are ready for first grade football, subsequently providing the financial return.
The challenge going forward is not only to retain the players when they go off-contract but to consider whether the younger players are worth putting money into at the expense of the established ones. Indeed, Moylan may prove to be a casualty of this process.
While the Panthers have some negotiating to do, if they continue to pour their resources into junior rugby league, the future is looking bright.
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