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The job isn’t finished for Wallace’s Panthers

In 2017, the Panthers defeated the Wyong Roos 20-12 to claim the NSW Cup Premiership at Leichhardt Oval.

Jarome Luai, Viliame Kikau, Moses Leota and Christian Crichton all donned the Penrith jersey that day, while Chris Smith played on the opposing team.  

In the same year, Peter Wallace captained the Panthers for seven NRL games, playing through serious injury including a broken hand, three broken ribs and more famously, without an ACL.

But this Sunday, Smith and Crichton will play on the same side, while Peter Wallace sits in the coaches box as the NSW Cup team attempts to secure the club’s fourth state title in 35 years.

Heading into the decider, Wallace says he’s happy with the work the team has been putting during the week to prepare for the clash with the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.

“We’ve had a good prep, obviously having the week off last week was a big help. We’ve been able to get two really solid weeks of preparation in, so it’s been good and we’re definitely ready,” he said. 

“Obviously we beat Newtown who were the minor premiers this year to get into the Grand Final, but we can’t have it for granted, we just have to make sure we prepare well, and our preparation will carry us into it.”

Captain J’maine Hopgood agrees with his coach, saying that not overcomplicating this week’s preparation will help the side transition into such a big match with limited nerves.

“We’re just trying to keep our preparation the same as what we’ve been trying to do all year, you don’t really want to change too many things going in,” Hopgood said.

“We’re just going in with the same game plan that we’ve been going with all year, so we’re just treating it like another game but obviously the stakes are a bit higher.”

In the first week of NSWRL finals, NRL head coach Ivan Cleary took almost Wallace’s entire squad to play the North Queensland Cowboys in Townsville. While the decision was criticised by many, it paid dividends for the players, who now know how to perform under real pressure.

“They took so much confidence out of that experience, I thought they did really well,” Wallace said.

“It was obviously exciting for the boys who made their debut and it was awesome preparation for a finals series, so I thought they did a great job and you can tell that they’ve come back confident ready to go.”

Starting at lock against the Cowboys in Round 25 Hopgood played 67 minutes, running 170 total metres, making 42 tackles and offloading the ball four times.  He believes that the experience and opportunity Cleary gave to the team helped them get in the zone to return to NSW and bury the Jets the following week.

“I don’t think there’s anything really better than just playing first grade, now all those guys have been exposed to the biggest level and it’s going to be the same again on the weekend,” he said.

“I’m sure they all benefited from that experience and they’re better as individuals coming off the back of that too.”

One of the Round 25 debutants was 19-year-old Jack Cole, who was recently named NSWRL Jersey Flegg Player of the Year. Cole comes into the side this weekend to replace an injured Tom Jenkins, who recently suffered a hand injury that required surgery.

“I definitely feel for Tommy, I guess it’s just a little bit of bad luck. He’s had to go all this way. He’s been a big contributor for us throughout the year, obviously making his debut too so yeah, I’m sure he’s hurting,” Wallace said. “But Jack’s had a massive year, he’s a really good kid and he takes in a lot of information, he’s a very fast learner.

“It just so happens that Tommy had a HIA in the last game and 'Coley' came in at left centre. It’s good that he got the best part of about 50 minutes or so playing with that edge in the Newtown game, so that’s good prep heading into Sunday.”

Hopgood shared his love for the younger boys in the team, saying that when he was their age he didn’t have the same confidence.

“Obviously, Coley’s had a debut this year so I guess he’s felt a bit of pressure like that before so the Grand Final won’t be his first time,” the skipper said.

“They’re actually pretty calm for young guys, considering that fact that when I was younger, I was probably a bit more nervous. But, Isaiah [Iongi] at the back as well, he’s so talented. I’ll just tell them before the game to back their instincts and they’ll be right once we get out there.”

There’s 11 years separating the oldest and youngest member of Wallace’s team, but he says they’re a really tight-knit group regardless and this year the bond between them has only gotten stronger.

Led by Hopgood in his final year at the club, the captain says he’s thankful that he’s viewed as a leader among such a talented group of people.

“I’m just super grateful to be able to be in the position that I’m in, it’s been one of the most enjoyable years that I’ve had and I’ve been here for six years. I’m so grateful that I’m seen as a leader of this group,” he said.

“'Mainey' has been awesome for us all year leading the boys on and off the field, he’ll help the team prepare like he normally would. He’s someone who leads with his actions, and I know it’s the same this week,” Wallace said.

While the Panthers edges closer to making history as the first club to secure four premierships in a single year, Wallace says that goal isn’t in the forefront of the team’s minds this week.  

“I think that’s something we can reflect on if it comes to fruition, but I think we’ve just got to stay present, get the job done this week first and that’ll be something to look back on,” the 36-year-old said.

“I think to have SG Ball win the comp, Flegg and Cup in the Grand Final and NRL in Prelim is a pretty big achievement in itself but yeah, the job’s not done yet.”

But for departing Panthers Sean O’Sullivan, Robert Jennings and Hopgood, deep down they’re hoping to end their time at the foot of the mountains on a high.  

“I’m just hoping that we can get the job done and make a bit of history and go out on a good note,” Hopgood said.

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.