At the very beginning of pre-season, the Jersey Flegg coaching staff wrote the number 48 in the middle of a whiteboard at training.
They told the team not to worry about the initial teething troubles that came with not playing a full season of rugby league in over two years, saying that in 48 weeks’ time, that’s when they had to be at their best.
It’s been 48 weeks since that number was written, and this Sunday, the team will leave it all out on the field when they take on the Newcastle Knights in the most important game of the season – the Grand Final.
Using more than 40 players throughout the season as injuries, illness and Origin disrupted the regular playing roster, coach Jono Rolfe says after suffering four-straight losses, the turning point came in Round 15 when the Panthers beat the Cronulla Sharks at their home.
“Beating Cronulla at Shark Park was huge turning point in the season, because guys wanted to stay for the journey,” he said. “It was at that moment I realised we’ve got a good squad here that could get this done.”
“After that win, I was certain that we’d found a DNA that suited us, and I knew that that’s what would get us home. From that point, we haven’t really deviated from those team principles, those club principles, attack and defence.”
Panthers Jersey Flegg captain Hohepa Puru says the large number of players used throughout the season is a testament to the trust the club has in Rolfe’s coaching and the team’s ability to work together through tough times.
“It shows a lot of courage from the club to be able to put their faith in so many players,” he said.
“Before every game Jono says we need to embrace the opportunity, enjoy the game and have fun, because that’s what it’s all about.”
Puru returns to the side for the game, after facing a one match suspension for an incident that occurred during the opening week of finals, Rolfe says his skipper is the “heartbeat” of the team and his inclusion will give the group a significant boost on-field.
“There were a few guys in the team who really developed as leaders last week knowing that Pep was out. We prepped pretty well without him, but we know he’s a huge in, so it’s nice to have him back,” he said.
The lock admits it was difficult to sit on the sidelines last week, but the week of rest helped him to get in the zone for the decider.
“I’m feeling really confident this week, I had a week’s rest, so that helped recharge the batteries and mentally get myself in the right state,” he said. “The boys put a lot of faith in me, they said they’d get the job done for me and they did. I was definitely nervous on the bench, but I was happy after the game.
“A few of them gave me a hug after the game and said, ‘We told you we’d get it done mate’ but we’ve got one more job. The job’s not done yet, so we’ll see what we can produce on Sunday.”
Rolfe encouraged his team to “ride the emotional wave” during the week, as they prepare to defeat the Knights for the first time in 2022.
“Prep this week is a combination of things, it’s being intense when we’re doing stuff, especially on the field and in the gym. But, it’s also about enjoying the week and enjoying the build-up and enjoying that moment with each other,” he explained.
“We’ve got a job to do on Sunday, so it’s that balance between being intense but also enjoying and spending time with each other as the season comes to a close.”
With a collection of SG Ball Championship winning players included in Rolfe’s line-up this week, Puru says the team couldn’t be closer heading into the Grand Final.
“We have a really good balance between our older and younger boys,” he said.
“We’re all close off the field and we all banter in the changerooms but when we run onto the field, we know it’s go time and the intensity is really high.”
In the battle for the Panthers fourth Jersey Flegg Premiership, both Rolfe and Puru share the belief that Penrith can get execute their plan to claim the title on Sunday afternoon.
“We’ve got one more mountain to climb. I genuinely believe it and I’ve been saying it for weeks, that we’ll get it done,” Rolfe said.
“I have no doubt that we’ll get the job done for them, the boys are confident, I’m confident and I’m backing every player that goes out there that we’ll get the job done,” the skipper added.
“I’m sure we’ll do Jono and the rest of the coaching staff proud.”
As the Panthers attempt to etch themselves into history as the first club in 40 years to win SG Ball, Jersey Flegg and State Cup titles, Rolfe says it’s important for his team to conquer the Knights so Peter Wallace’s NSW Cup side can carry the winning momentum into their game straight after.
“We’d love nothing more than to get the win and get the club off to a great start. It would be an absolutely buzz to get both and we’ll be doing everything possible to make that happen.”
It’s been a long 48 weeks, but the Panthers are primed for the biggest game of the season.