Penrith Panthers – Mountain men or chocolate soldiers?

July 25, 2017

As the sun glistens on a warm winter’s afternoon at Pepper Stadium at the foot of the Blue Mountains, the crowd is slowly building in anticipation of today’s first grade match between the Penrith Panthers and Manly Sea Eagles.

Being a home game, the crowd is predominantly decked out in Panthers supporters gear, which has had various changes in jersey design and colour schemes over the years from the chocolate soldiers of the 1970s and the licorice all sorts colours from their 1991 premiership year … to today’s jerseys. All mentioned are popular among the Panthers faithful.

The club has a very loyal following, but fans are often left disappointed, because the team is inconsistent – a problem summed up by the two nicknames they’ve acquired over the years: the Mountain Men and Chocolate Soldiers; due to their predominantly chocolate brown strip of the 1970s and ‘80s.

Hopes are high this year, as they were one match away from qualifying for the grand final last season and on the back of that promise… they were installed as joint competition favourites alongside the highly fancied Melbourne Storm and the Canberra Raiders for the 2017 season.

Despite the lofty expectations, they have failed thus far to consistently deliver on the paddock and the scoreboard.

Today they play the Manly Sea Eagles and unfolding on the field is the curtain-raiser, the Holden Cup fixture – a sponsored name for the youth competition, which is full of tomorrow’s rising stars. The young Panthers eventually lose the match 22-14 in a tight tussle to Manly.

The Holden Cup loss mirrors the 2017 first grade Panthers season. They have had several close losses, which has contributed to an inconsistent season. This is despite the Panthers having several Australian and NSW representatives in their squad and having being installed as joint competition favourites at the start of the year. Unfortunately, though, the Panthers have failed to live up to the hype and expectation placed upon them.

Real Sport editor, rugby league expert and podcast host of ‘Panthers Weekly with Strawbs & Teach’ Daniel Lang is a Panthers fan and he was asked for his thoughts on why the Panthers have struggled for consistency during the 2017 season?

Lang told Hatch, “I think the pre-season expectations from outside the club were a bit too high, particularly with two young halves (Matt Moylan and Ivan Cleary) running the show and a few boys have read their own headlines and believed the hype a bit too much as well.”

Lang also indicated the young halves would take time to gel, as they have been inconsistent, flashing their skill set some weeks and then being too introverted other weeks in not closing those matches out.

This season appears to mirror the Panthers early existence, as they have struggled for consistency. The western Sydney club has qualified for the finals series just 11 times during their 50 years. This statistic wasn’t helped by the fact Penrith was seen as an outpost of Sydney until the mid 1980s, which made it difficult to attract players.

Their first final series during the 1985 season was eighteen years in the making after they entered the competition during the 1967 season.

Since then, the Panthers have won two premierships – 1991 and 2003. They have qualified for the final series on eight other occasions. Due to their success, they are now known as the mountain men.

They are rarely seen as melting chocolate soldiers these days, but they were during their formative years of the 1970s. The tag was given to them by radio commentator Frank Hyde as a compliment, due to their chocolate brown jersey and the fact they played so hard that day “they didn’t melt like chocolate soldiers’.

Unfortunately it appears some unkind rival fans hijacked the term and used it whenever the Panthers didn’t play so well and they were thrashed on the scoreboard.

Jon Burndred was interviewed a week after the Manly match at the TAB betting agency, which is located in the bowels of Panthers. He is a lifelong local and Panthers fan.

Burndred said supporting the Panthers is a way of life for him and his friends. He mentioned some were away when he spoke to Hatch, as they had headed to Auckland to watch the game against the New Zealand Warriors the day before. He said, “They’d be here now if they weren’t away in New Zealand following the team.”

He has some fond memories of his own following Penrith, as he headed in on one of the few hundred supporters buses from Panthers to Homebush to watch the 2003 NRL grand final.

It was a triumphant day, as he drank champagne with the players in the function room afterwards. He had previously seen club legends like Greg Alexander, Royce Simmons, Mark Geyer, John Cartwright, Brad Izzard and their teammates win in ‘91 when he was nine, but the 2003 win was extra special, as he celebrated with the players – Craig Gower, Luke Lewis, Luke Rooney and Ryan Girdler and the rest of the squad.

Dave Watts is also a lifelong Panthers fan. He is also head of Telecommunications and Infrastructure at channel 7 and will be instrumental in the Rugby League World Cup broadcast in Australia.

Watts represented the Panthers as a 15-year-old-hooker in their junior underage teams during the 1980s before life, reality and work took over. He’s a little disappointed, along with wife Gabi that their team hadn’t been travelling as well as they had hoped at the start of the season.

Gabi, a schoolteacher by trade, is not immune to sporting success herself. She won the throws pentathlon gold medal, along with bronze in the shot put at the 2015 World Masters Athletics Championships in Lyon, France.

She said, “The whole family including sons Kurt and Jarryd support the Panthers, as we are proud locals. They can be frustrating to watch, as they can be inconsistent, but they are our team.

We’ll support them win, lose or draw. It’s the one thing we all love to do together as a family and season ticket holders. Kurt and Jarryd both attended St. Dominic’s College, one of the feeder schools for the Panthers.

Kurt went to school with Panthers winger Dallin Watene-Jelezniak, so there is a bond in knowing some of the players as well” Gabi explains.

During the first grade match, Kurt is disappointed with some of the refereeing decisions and shouts out “why” when a contentious decision goes against his team.

The Panthers end up with an 8-2 penalty count, as Ivan Cleary extends their lead 16-8 by way of a penalty goal. The Panthers take home the two points on the day and a week later they beat the New Zealand Warriors. They have now won the last five from seven matches and are only two points out of the top 8.

Lang, Burndred, the Watts family and Panthers fans everywhere can dare to dream and time will tell if the 2017 Panthers – their tribe – can once again become the mountain men they are now known as or whether their season fizzles out.

Whatever the verdict, it won’t be for lack of trying, as they emulate all of those hard working Panthers who have come before including the much maligned 1970s “Chocolate Soldier” Panthers players who did have very tough work and training ethics.

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