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This time last year fullback Will Smith was a rookie five-eighth helping guide the Panthers to the finals, but following his starring role in Penrith's 18-point win over his former team Newcastle he is glad he isn't just making up the numbers anymore.

Within the first five minutes Smith had scored against his former club and continued to hand down his punishment throughout proceedings – ending the game with 160 metres, two line breaks and four tackle breaks and proving once again he is more than capable of stepping into Matt Moylan's shoes when it matters.

With first-choice halves Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace as well as back-up Isaac John all injured, Smith felt he had to lift with hooker Apisai Koroisau and back-rower Tyrone Peachey forming a makeshift halves pairing.

"I felt I had to make sure I had more ownership on my role and on the team. I felt a lot more comfortable doing that. Definitely last year playing in the finals helped me big time for this season," Smith said. 

"I think last year I was just another number on the paddock whereas this year I think I stepped it up.

"I was nervous at the start but I was excited after scoring and I was on a high after that. They are my old club so it was good to get the win. 

"It allows me now to go into next year strong too. It was good to get the win for [retiring winger] David Simmons and the rest of the boys who are leaving the club and I'm feeling like my best footy is still yet to come."

Currently off-contract, Smith was hopeful he would remain at the Panthers next season – as was coach Ivan Cleary.

With the 23-year-old capable of playing at fullback, in the halves and in the centres, Cleary is keen to keep the 17 NRL game utility at the foot of the mountains. 

"Will's in that phase of his career where he's that fringe utility type guy.  He's taken a while to get going but he's learning the role really well in this grade," Cleary said.

"He's definitely been a shining light for the last few weeks. I'd love to keep Will. He's a good man. He trains hard and he works hard and you always love players who cover different spots."

Smith went on to deny rumours he was heading back home to Newcastle – the club that granted him a release after they infamously signed Craig Gower back in 2013.

"There is talk there with the Panthers but nothing just yet. I'd prefer to here – they have helped me develop into where I'm at today so I'd love to stay," Smith said.

"The [Knights rumours are] the first I've heard of them so we'll have to wait and see."

Smith also put his appearance at Newcastle's Old Boys Day last weekend down to a case of supporting mate and Knights halfback Tyrone Roberts at his final home game for the club, and not as an indication he would return to Newcastle in 2016.

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Acknowledgement of Country

Penrith Panthers players and staff respect and honour the traditional custodians of the land and pay our respects to their elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.