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Secret to success: How the Panthers dynasty was built from within

An hour before news of James Fisher-Harris' shock departure from Penrith was announced, the phone of Panthers CEO of Rugby League Matt Cameron began to ring.

"I heard some news about a prop?" was the question posed by a journalist.

"Yes, we've signed young Luron Patea," Cameron replied.

The news wasn't quite what the reporter wanted to hear but that's exactly where attention had turned for an organisation that has mastered the art of being one step ahead.

Proactive, rather than reactive – ensuring that even when they do get surprised by news or transfers, there's no panic buttons being pushed.

“James is a big piece of the puzzle and we didn't see it coming. Not the back end of it anyway,” Cameron told in Bathurst. “But young Luron, he's 21, he's come through the system and already playing reserve grade.

"He’s just the next one that's coming through and that’s the production line.

“How we solve the James one [long-term], I'm not too sure. We've got Lindsay Smith ready to go, Liam Henry's ready to go, Moses [Leota] is there.

“We've got great players coming through, whether we have to go to market, that's next week’s conversation, but we’ve done it before.” 

Fisher-Harris reflects on emotional week

Filling a massive JFH-shaped hole in their forward pack will come as a significant challenge for the three-peat Panthers but defying the odds of their departures is something the club has done time and time again.

Like replacing Matt Burton with an unproven Izack Tago, Api Koroisau with a young Mitch Kenny, or Stephen Crichton with Dally M Rookie of the Year Sunia Turuva, Penrith have built a dynasty on their next-man-up mentality.

“In a salary cap world, the reality is we've had to lose two players every year since the 2020 grand final but we know the difference is we go in eyes wide open knowing that that's going to happen,” Cameron said. 

“So when players like Jarome, as an example, have an opportunity to grow in someone else's club, we've always got people coming through the bottom end that are ready to go.

"It's never nice [to lose them], but 18 of the last 26 players to leave the club have gone on to sign the biggest contracts they've ever signed. You get sh**** for a day but then you get over it and become really proud of being part of their journey.

"If you're going to have a big development system at the bottom end that captures the Western Corridor, it's always going to put pressure on the main group from underneath.” 

Panthers Group CEO Brian Fletcher chuckles at the team that could be filled by ex-Panthers since their first of three straight grand final victories in 2021.

But with every Tago or Turuva that steps up into the NRL and helps deliver the club another title, the perfect example of how a club has got the system right rings true.

"You hear a lot of outside noise every year that we lose players because we lose superstars," Fletcher told

We’ve probably lost a team in the last five years that would probably be in the top four,

Panthers Group CEO Brian Fletcher

"We lost Burton, we lost Koroisau and Kikau in the same year and they said that was the end of us. We lost Crichton and Leniu now and we’re only two points off the lead so that’s how the system’s built.

"It doesn’t disturb us because we’ve got the system right. We’re undefeated in reserve grade and to win all four comps in 2022, the first time in 113 years, that was just unbelievable. My success as the Group CEO is attributed to being smart enough to put smart people underneath me."

One of those people is Cameron – Fletcher's '"football guru" – who introduced a restructured pathways program under the blueprint ‘built from within’ after arriving at the club in 2012.

Back to Bathurst

That program placed a big focus on extending their junior talent pool and opening up their backyard to the other side of the mountains in the Central West through a commitment to the region both on and off the field.

Penrith have played games at Bathurst's Carrington Park since 2014, including their most recent win over Wests Tigers as part of the Telstra Country Series, while the club will also play additional games at Mudgee's Glen Willow Stadium from 2025.

“In 2012 we came out and did a development camp in Bathurst and there was 160 kids from Group 10,” Cameron said. "When I took some pictures back you could see there was not one Penrith jersey, not one Penrith hat, not one Penrith pair of shorts. I went to the board and said we’ve got to do something about this.

“We put together some programs which started with what we call Bathurst Cubs, a four-week program that ran into the season. We've just steadily grown the presence not only here, not only here but also Dubbo and Forbes.

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"So if you're a young country kid and you're playing representative football, you go into the Western Rams program, which is their version of Harold Matts and SG Ball which Liam Henry and Jack Cole have come through.”

Penrith's commitment to investing in their own talent pool – be that at the foot of the Blue Mountains or the western tablelands of NSW – has been the lynchpin to an effective production line of quality NRL talent.

Handing Dubbo boy Isaah Yeo his NRL debut 10 years ago and now watching the likes of Henry (from Blayney) and Cole (Orange) continue their development in the NRL, coach Ivan Cleary said 'you just can't hear enough' success stories from the bush.

From the Winner's sheds: Isaah Yeo

“We always were a development club but it shifted somewhere where only 20 per cent of our NRL squad were from our local juniors or came through our pathways. We wanted to flip that around and get it to more like 80 per cent and only recruit where we needed to,” Cleary told

"We tried to grow as much as we could in terms of our own backyard and we saw there was a real opportunity in the Central West which we like to see as ours too.

"That was a big driver when us as a club made the mandate we wanted to be a development club and only recruit where we needed. 

If you’ve got a mandate to grow your own players, even if players do have to leave, it’s hopefully like a never-ending production line.

Panthers coach Ivan Cleary

“Since we won all four grades in 2022, it’s also probably made things harder with clubs starting to poach not just our NRL talent but our juniors as well. 

"It’s hard to replace people like James Fisher-Harris but these challenges continue to come and all we can control is growing our community, developing our juniors and the Central West continues to be such an important part of that."

Not only have Penrith impressed in their ability to unveil some of the best talent in the game, but they've remained dominant as more and more players are whisked away for representative duties.

The explanation is simple for Cameron: ‘alignment’.

“One of the first things that we did when I sat down with Ivan is said, ok, you're the head coach and we're trying to find kids down here to play and coach, but ultimately, we want them to be first graders,” Cameron said.

“So you tell us what you're looking for in first grade, you tell us how you want them to be coached and then we basically just break that down into segments and introduce it step by step.

Schneider looking slick

“The way I explain it to people is the head coach is teaching them quadratic equations. The guy that coaches the under-16's is teaching them their timetables.

“So when someone like Liam Henry or Jack Cole comes from the Western Rams program, it looks very much like the Penrith Panthers program. He comes to Penrith when he plays U/21s and the U/21s coach is coaching the same way as the reserve grade coach is and the reserve grade coach is coaching in the same way as the first great coach.

"Everything is working in alignment."

Cleary praises 'forward leader' Fisher-Harris

For now, however, while the club is busy working out just how they go about replacing their three-time premiership-winning prop, there’s still a trophy to defend and a slice of history to chase in becoming the first team to claim four-straight since the 1960s.

“I feel at the moment everyone's moved to 2025, but we've still got 23 games in 2024 to play,” Cameron said.

“For the boys that are leaving the club at the moment, I'm sure there's a lot to play for. And historically, if you look back, the boys that have been leaving our club, the season that they played in their last year at the club was probably the best season that they'd played.

“I think 2024 could still be very special. But we're process-driven, we're not result-driven, so we'll just stick to the process and see what happens.”

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.