Panthers' vast, painstaking NRL pathway

·5-min read

Somewhere inside Penrith's renowned NRL academy is a colour-coded magnet board with the progress of more than 100 pathways players on it.

At one point or another, it's held the names of 21 of Penrith's current 30-man NRL squad, including virtually every big-name player.

"It's something we look at every day after every training session," Penrith's elite player development manager Ben Harden tells AAP.

"Whether it is a Harold Matthews, SG Ball or Jersey Flegg session, some magnets are getting moved on a daily basis. Some not for months."

Harden is the man charged with overseeing Penrith's famed pathways program.

A gun young halfback himself earlier this century, his career was ended by four straight knee reconstructions.

Some at Penrith reckon if not for the injuries, he'd still be their No.7.

But in many ways, the club has won out by having him in charge of the pathways system and working the whiteboard instead.

Every magnet moved on Penrith's board has a flow-on effect.

At the top end, it tells the Panthers what superstars are coming through their ranks and when they'll need to make room for them.

Think the purchase of veteran James Maloney in 2018, buying the Panthers two years to bring Jarome Luai through.

Or James Tamou, let go at the end of last year with Spencer Leniu and Moses Leota ready to fill the hole.

"It's minimum three or four years (working ahead)," Harden said.

"While I am coaching the Jersey Flegg I am thinking 2023 or 2024 NRL salary cap. That is my job."

At the other end of the magnet board is the management of one of the biggest junior systems in rugby league.

A result of eight years of evolution that started with now GM of football Matt Cameron and Jim Jones, it has helped make Penrith a powerhouse.

Much spoken about, it's important to lay out how a system that has more than 300 youngsters in it creates an NRL squad of 30.

Around four weeks before Christmas every year in non-COVID times, 80 under-13s locals are brought through the Panthers' doors for training.

Each year they are taught the same basics by each coach's designated age group, with Jones' son Sam helping select the group of hopefuls.

Former Penrith second-rower Lee Hopkins oversees conditioning, while all coaches live by a simple mantra to get young players ready to enter the club's system.

Kids must learn their timetables before they do quadratic equations.

"It's a basic principles and awareness of the game being taught," Harden said.

"It's about you have to wear the shirt we give you. You have to ring if you're late.

"We start to plant that seed, we don't care how good you are. It's about how good of a person you are and what values you have."

A year later that group of 80 becomes 50, and by under-15s it is 40.

At the same time, similar programs are being run in the bush at satellite cities of Dubbo, Forbes and Bathurst under the likes of former Penrith lock Dave Elvy.

"We've stopped the lingo, that its 'out there'. We count that as part of our area," Harden said.

"They are just our western region program in the same way we have our Penrith development program."

By Harold Matthews Cup in under-17s, the two groups first mix.

Jones Jnr drives a mini bus to Bathurst each Friday, bringing players back to Penrith to train that night and play on Saturday.

For under-19s and under-21s more regional kids come into the system, as talented players make the move over east the mountains.

Not every player has followed the system from the start.

Luai was part of the first intake of under-14s, Nathan Cleary arrived in under-15s.

Brian To'o, Mitch Kenny and Stephen Crichton all missed out on Harold Matts selection, but quickly fast-tracked their way into SG Ball.

All the while, their progression remains tracked on the magnet board, as well as several whiteboards, spreadsheets and as Harden puts it: "IP between the ears."

"I am talking to Matt Cameron about problems we will have and in what positions," Harden said.

"And if I feel the players can do 90 per cent of his role at 25 per cent of the price, then that is my job (to point that out)."

Their task has become harder too, with success boosting the price of players quicker than originally expected.

Viliame Kikau is the next example of that, off-contract next year and already set to attract high interest on bigger money after the club already lost Matt Burton.

Grand finalists last season, Penrith have gone quickly to managing a roster with several marquee players rather than one built on potential.

"As a player trickles out at $20, you might have to replace him with a $10 player," Cameron said.

"Or we might have four of those $5 players, and we have to work out which one we turn into the $10 player.

"That's the beauty of being a development club, we should have five in every position.

"It's then which three you carry into a first-grade squad and which one you turn into a pro-baller."

In retention and recruitment meetings, Harden not only identifies who those players are, but the young stars that space will need to be made for in years to come.

And in turn, what actions must be taken now to allow it.

"It's all about trust. The trust that I pick them, Jimmy gets them (contracted)," Harden said.

"I help coach them, Hoppo (Lee Hopkins) gets them fitter, faster and stronger. Sammy helps look after them.

"Everyone has their cog in the wheel."

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