Over the past few years of success for the Penrith Panthers, one mantra has carried them through, no matter what the situation on the field: next man up.
Whether players have been unavailable due to injury, suspension, representative duty or just being rested, coach Ivan Cleary has known that the replacements are more than capable of doing the job.
In 2023 alone, the likes of Jack Cogger, Zac Hosking, Luke Garner, and Tyrone Peachey are just some of the players who have filled in due to other players being unavailable. Their impact on the side has been a key part of the Panthers hunt for a third-straight premiership.
Each joined the club during the off-season and have spent time in both NSW Cup and first grade. Cogger filled the large shoes of both Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai during their respective injuries, earning a spot on the bench for the grand final.
Hosking joined the club with just four games of experience, filling in for 21 matches in the back row, centres and on the bench and being included among the reserves for Sunday.
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Garner and Peachey both joined the club at the start of the year and have found themselves splitting their time between NSW Cup and first grade. 12 months ago, they were licking their wounds following a Wests Tigers wooden spoon. Now they potentially sit 80 minutes away from a premiership ring.
For Peachey in particular, there’s a bit of unfinished business at the club. He played 109 games for the club between 2014 and 2018, playing in four finals series, but never reaching the grand final. There was a sense of pride for him watching the young brigade take out the premierships in the last two years and he wants a chance to taste that success before retiring.
“I want to win a comp before I finish and I knew my best chance was for me to come back here,” Peachey said of his return.
“It’s a good opportunity to get a ring and I can’t wait to see what happens this weekend.
“I was always proud to see them succeed. They’re all good kids and for them to do what they’ve done is special. I’ve always watched them with a smile and it’s been good.”
Peachey admitted that he was under no illusions of what his role would be from the start of the year after a conversation with Ivan Cleary before he returned to the club.
“He told me I would have to earn my spot,” Peachey said. “I knew that I was probably going to be in NSW Cup for the first couple of weeks, but after the preseason I had, I was pretty confident I’d get a few more games and happy with the that went.”
Sunia Turuva is another one of the players who have stepped up in 2023, after Taylan May injured his ACL in the World Club Challenge. Following his starring role in the Panthers NSW Cup premiership campaign in 2022, Turuva began the season preparing to spend most of the year in that competition again. Since May’s injury, he has only missed one first grade game.
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“I was just preparing to fill in when the boys went to Origin this year,” Turuva said.
“Everything has happened pretty quick. One day I’m just preparing for a NSW Cup season, next I’m playing first grade. I’m just trying to take each week at a time I guess.
“The boys give me confidence each week. I’m just trying to go out there and play my part for the team and not let anyone down.”
On top of Turuva, several of Penrith’s other lower grade stars have played crucial roles during the season, including Lindsay Smith, Thomas Jenkins, Luke Sommerton, and Matt Eisenhuth. Smith in particular has made himself at home in first grade, establishing himself as a regular in the side while Liam Martin was out injured.
The ability of those players to bring success to the lower grades, then make the transition to first grade is something Martin described as “incredible.”
“One person goes down and the next person steps up and plays their role perfectly,” Martin said.
“You just see the culture they’ve built over the years. Last year, having four grades [NRL, NSW Cup, Jersey Flegg and SG Ball] in the grand finals, it’s just incredible and shows how successful the system is here.
Perhaps the biggest step up for a player in 2023 was the changing of Mitch Kenny’s role from bench player to starting hooker.
With the departure of Apisai Koroisau, Kenny has had to stand up for the Panthers, comfortably filling that role, improving as the season has gone on.
While acknowledging the next man up mentality has played a part, Kenny also puts his form down to having a consistent role for the first time.
“This is the first year where I’ve got a bit of security around what I’m doing and I know my role,” Kenny said.
“This is the first year where I’ve been the starting hooker and gone close to playing 80 minutes every week. I think it’s natural, the more time you’ve got on the field building connections and getting experience, you learn what works and what doesn’t.”