Panther cubs relishing every second of life-changing season

While every Panthers player is desperate for an upset win over the Roosters to keep their finals hopes alive, the crop of rookies know they will be better next year for every minute they get in 2019.

The club has handed a debut to eight players this year, with a ninth (Billy Burns) listed to join them on Saturday in a 17 where all bar two of the Class of '19, Matt Burton and Jed Cartwright, will be in the side.

Two of those rookies, winger Brian To'o and middle forward Spencer Leniu, expressed to NRL.com just how blessed they feel to have been given their opportunity so much sooner than expected.

"I reckon I speak on behalf of them – we're so happy to be here," said To'o, the club's joint leading tryscorer this season with eight in 13 games.

"For the first-grade opportunity to come so quick, it's really life-changing. For me, it still hasn't sunk in that I'm playing first grade. It's such a blessing."

Leniu is heading into his fourth NRL start and gradually building his minutes after a tough initiation.

"I'm still buzzing at the moment, coming in here every day with the boys, it's like living the dream," Leniu said.

"I'm trying to put my confidence and my groove into the team. That will grow every game that I play.

Panthers forward Spencer Leniu.
Panthers forward Spencer Leniu. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

"I'm starting to get more comfortable. The first game I was gassed out in 10 minutes, now I'm starting to play 20 or 30 minutes. I'm starting to get that confidence, starting to get used to the speed. I got about 31 minutes [against North Queensland] so it was good to get a longer stint."

In his short top-grade career, Leniu has marked up on some of the NRL's most dominant middles, debuting against Andrew Fifita and Paul Gallen, trying to match it with Payne Haas and Matt Lodge a week later before getting an up-close look at Jason Taumalolo last weekend before meeting the star-studded Roosters pack at the SCG on Saturday.

"It was pretty cool playing the Cowboys, the likes of Jason Taumalolo and that," he smiled.

"[The Roosters] have got Jason Taumalolos all over the park! It's going to be a tough task for us but if we go in there with a pretty good attitude I think we'll get the job done.

"I try to just focus on myself and the team more than the opposition. If I go into the games thinking 'I'm going to play Taukeiaho, I'm going to play all these big names' that will get me in the wrong mindset so I think narrowing my focus to us and the team will be more beneficial."

The high turnover in the NRL side this year has had a flow-on effect to the club's Canterbury Cup team that provided so many of those rookies, to the point it has been almost a revolving door with 54 players used.

That side is still pushing for a top-four finish and the message that has helped them to that position could help the senior side this weekend, according to Leniu.

"Because there's always people coming in and out of Cup side, the coach's main message every week is it's just 17 on 17 players so if everyone wins their individual battles we'll go a long way to winning the game," he said.

Leniu and To'o will reap the benefits of their rookie year in the coming pre-season and beyond.

"There's still a chance [to play finals] so we'll take that, do whatever it takes, but whether we win or lose I'm still happy to be here," said To'o.

"This is like a learning year this year. Come next year we'll have plenty of young guys who've got experience from this year in first grade."