Schoolboy bonds strengthen young Panthers

Just over four months ago, the Jersey Flegg Panthers ran out to battle the Cronulla Sharks, keen to prove their premiership credentials in a top-of-the-table clash.

They did that and more, running away 50-10 winners over a Cronulla side that would later be crowned this season’s Minor Premiers.

This Saturday at 4:30pm they take to Campbelltown Stadium in a bid to go within one win of a Grand Final berth.

They will be without six of the Panthers who played in the 40-point win over the Sharks.

Charlie Staines, Brendan Hands and Matt Burton have made the move to Canterbury Cup, Shawn Blore suffered an ACL injury, and Spencer Leniu and Stephen Crichton have established themselves in the NRL side.

Current Flegg squad members J'maine Hopgood, Adam Fearnley, Alex Myles, Daine Laurie, Jake Tago and Terrell May have also made Canterbury Cup appearances this season.

In fact, the Panthers Canterbury Cup side under the guidance of coach Guy Missio has fielded an astounding 54 players in 2019. Even more remarkable is the fact they fell just short of securing a top four finish despite the weekly changes to their line-up.

For some teams, the constant chopping and changing can be a nuisance. But Jersey Flegg coach Ben Harden says it has had the complete opposite impact on his playing group, who have been spurred on by seeing their teammates make it to the big stage.

“I think that’s what drives the players who have come in, knowing that there is a pathway there,” Harden said.

“Ivan (Cleary) and Guy Missio are willing to back any of the young blokes coming through.

“We had a talented group and we said in our 45-man squad pre-season camp that everyone is going to play a role within the season and that’s exactly what has happened.”

Leniu and Crichton both attended Patrician Brothers’ College, Blacktown, along with current Panthers Brent Naden, Jarome Luai and Tyrone May.

While the pair won’t be running out at Campbelltown on Saturday, the 'Patties' connection remains strong within the Flegg squad.

Nine players shared part of their schooling journey at Blacktown alongside Leniu and Crichton, including centre Tago.

“A couple of months ago they (Leniu and Crichton) were playing with us,” Tago said.

“We’re proud of them and one day we can hopefully all play together in first grade.”

It’s a sentiment shared by front-rower Brad Gaut, who relocated from Forbes in 2017 to attend Patrician Brothers and play in Penrith’s SG Ball side.

“It’s awesome seeing those boys succeed given how hard they worked,” he said.

“Playing with them in SG Ball (and then seeing them debut) makes the pathway heaps more realistic.”

Harden says he has noticed a distinct level of excitement and enthusiasm within the playing group following the debuts of former Patties boys Leniu and Crichton.

“There's always chat about ‘he’s an ex-Patties boys, he’s an ex-Patties boy’, whether it’s at Panthers or another club,” he said.

“There’s a lot of pride that those two boys were only 12 months ago playing at the school.”

Harden himself is an ex-student and played first grade at Patrician Brothers.

He has seen first-hand the role the school has played not only in his rugby league journey but in that of the players he coaches.

“It’s a rugby league heartland obviously, Western Sydney,” he said.

“But Patties, growing up, was as tight a connection as coming through the system at Panthers. It always feels like home going back there.

“They had the National Final in the same week as the Jersey Flegg Grand Final and externally you would probably think a school final on a Wednesday doesn’t mean as much as a Flegg final on a Saturday.

“But deep down, and even in conversation with them, and as an ex-student, I understood both were as important as each other."

Talented playmaker Daine Laurie joined Patrician Brothers and Panthers at the start of Year 12 after moving down from Iluka on the NSW North Coast.

Laurie has been a shining light for Penrith since his arrival and has four tries in his last two games since returning from injury.

Being almost 700 kilometres away from family has been tough but Laurie says moving in with fellow Patties students Gaut and Toby Wescott, now at Canberra Raiders, helped him adjust.

“It was pretty tough at the start. I got a little homesick but I had two of my mates here that I built a good relationship with,” he said.

Laurie also credits the support of Panthers Indigenous Welfare Officer Glen Liddiard in helping him feel at home.

“‘Lids has done heaps. He’s like an uncle for me and all the other boys too.”

The rugby league season may be coming to a close across all grades in the coming weeks and the holiday break will certainly be welcomed.

But in the meantime, the focus for the Jersey Flegg side is squarely on the Roosters and a chance at booking a spot in the Preliminary Finals.

Regardless of whether a premiership is won, when training resumes in November and the summer heat rolls in, the path set by former teammates Leniu and Crichton will be all the motivation needed.

“We love that the boys are going up and playing Canterbury Cup and first grade,” Harden said.

“We back them until the cows come home and whatever seventeen we put out there, we know we’re going to compete until the final whistle.”