The coaches who turned cubs into Panthers
Some were childhood prodigies, others were late bloomers, but all needed help along the way to make it to the top. The junior coaches and mentors of the Panthers remember what made them so special.
Dave Mackinnon, St Dominic's College, coached Cleary in Year 9 and 10
"He didn't dominate in the early ages, in the under 14s and under 15s, he was a good player without being an outstanding player.
"But you could tell that he had something, in terms of his work ethic, training and listening to coaches … so by the time he was in Year 12, he was a clear stand out.
"Nathan also had a really good reputation here at school, he was quite an academic kid, he did really well in his HSC, and he was a college prefect."
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Rodney Peake, St Dominic's College, coached Cleary in Year 11 and Year 12
"I don't think I've ever witnessed a player who can sum up a situation in times of pressure like Nathan.
"I can recount three occasions where the game was a draw or we were slightly behind, and in the dying minutes, he'd come up with a winning play.
"There were so many times I can recall down at Campbelltown or up at Lismore, where he won us the game single-handedly. He's always had that ability to have a great deal of time, he makes it look effortless, I don't know how he does it.
"He has an unbelievable work ethic … the training session would finish at 5pm, but he'd still be kicking for goals at 6pm. He'd stay behind extra hours to practice his kicking game, and that's where he really developed.
"In Year 9 and 10 he was probably just a knockabout kid, but in Year 11 and 12 we saw a real change in him and I think it was the little extra efforts he'd make after training that allowed him to get in front of the pack.
"I remember him sitting in the corner in the sheds, him and his best mate, and they were quite intimidated and nervous about making their (St Dominic's College first grade) debuts.
"I can't believe he was once sitting in that corner worried about playing Eagle Vale High, and now he's coming up against Cameron Smith in the grand final against the Storm.
"We've had him back to hand out some jerseys to our students who make first grade, yesterday we were talking about (St Dom's recent Schoolboy Cup quarterfinal) Westfields game, he said after the COVID situation settles, he can't wait to get back and help out with the boys.
"He watched the highlights on the Telegraph, he couldn't believe the effort, how well the boys played."
Former Cowboys recruitment manager Adrian Thomson
"They had the national schoolboy carnival and we'd been invited over (to Fiji) by one of the local clubs through (former Souths centre) Wise Kativerata. We flew in to Nadi and travelled all night across the country to Suva.
"I've got to say it wasn't hard to select Billy. There was a lot of talent there, but he stood out.
"We were in awe of the athleticism of all the players. But he stood out, he had all the skills and didn't shirk anything in defence. He had all the attributes.
"We met his mum and dad and they were great people - I think his dad was king of their village and he was bigger than Billy.
"There were some French rugby clubs there and his parents said he had the opportunity to go to France but we were thankful we could convince them and him Townsville was a good environment for him to develop in.
"They decided it was best for him, and he did as well. It was a big move for him at the time but he's adapted, which is a great credit to him.
"It's a little bit disappointing he's not still at the Cowboys, but I think it suited him to come to Townsville first, it being a smaller country city. He's still got a lot of people who support him up here."
Former Penrith NSW Cup coach Steve Georgallis
"He was raw talent, you could tell he could play the game but talent only gets you so far and hard work gets you the rest of the way, so he had to learn about the hard work that would get him the opportunity to play first grade.
"He played a bit of middle and a bit of edge in reserve grade - Anthony Griffin wanted him to play middle but you could see he was going to be a really good edge backrower.
"There didn't have to be too much of an adjustment. When you watch him play he ran like a middle when he was on the edge and he always had good feet and that offload in his game.
"That wasn't going to be too much of an issue, it was more about playing the 80 minutes week in and week out and getting fit enough to do that. They're the little adjustments he had to make.
"You could just see he was going to make it, we just had to keep him on the straight and narrow.
"That's your job as reserve grade coach, getting those players to live their dream and play first grade and you don't want to see them come back.
"There was one game against Wentworthville and he started in the middle but had some injuries, so he went to the edge and he scored a try and set up two.
"That's when we thought he'd become a really good backrower once he got fit enough. He was always destined to play first grade and he's really kicked on now."
Greg Beacroft, Patrician Brothers College Blacktown, coached Crichton in the school's 2017 and 2018 Schoolboy Cup sides
"He was a lovely kid, the happiest kid. He played in our school basketball teams, won grand finals at that level, got involved in every activity at school. He'd be playing basketball most lunchtimes at school with his mates.
"He's also a really talented musician, he's one of the best drummers to ever come through our school. He can play guitar and sing, too.
"In 2017, he was just playing rugby league for fun, and people started to recognise his talent. I wanted him to try out for the Metropolitan Catholic Schools rep team, I was coaching that team. I told Stephen to try out, and he said: I don't think I'm good enough. But when he went to trials, the other selectors said he's the best kid here.
"Three years ago, Stephen didn't realise, 2017 was probably the making for him, because he made that rep team, then he made the NSW Catholic Schoolboys team, and he nearly made the Australian Schoolboys team.
"In those three years, he's grown from not thinking he was good, to playing in an NRL grand final, so he's got all this belief. From a kid who was playing for fun, to suddenly he now realises how good he can be.
"We tend to watch them play SG Ball before they play for us, and every time I saw him play I thought: jeez, how good is this kid. And he was getting better every week.
"In the under-15s, he was playing division 3 for St Clair. I think the making for him was playing SG Ball for him in 2017, having all that pre-season training with Penrith for six or seven months as a 17-year-old, that was the making of him. We were lucky to come off the back of that.
Greg Beacroft, Patrician Brothers College Blacktown, coached Leniu in the school's 2016, 2017 and 2018 Schoolboy Cup sides
"He always seemed to be so much stronger than the other kids. When he was 16 years old, he could play Schoolboy Cup against the 18-year-olds and still hold his own.
"He was always like that, strong and dominant. And just a really good kid, would do anything for you, both Spencer and Stephen, they've got really big hearts.
"Always a good listener, very well mannered and respectful. We have mass here every Thursday morning, and he made sure he was there every Thursday morning."
Greg Beacroft, Patrician Brothers College Blacktown, coached Luai in the school's 2014 and 2015 Schoolboy Cup sides
"Everyone loved Jarome. He was very modest. You'd tell him he was really good, but he'd go: no, they're better than me, they're better than me. He'd always try to downplay his ability.
"Jarome is a brilliant singer. He was always singing My Girl by the Temptations. Walking between classes, he'd just break out into song. He'd be singing My Girl all the time.
"He wasn't cheeky at school, he was really respectful.
"If you wanted something done, you'd generally just give the ball to Jarome.
"We played Endeavour Sports High at Kogarah Oval and Jarome got the ball and ran 60 metres from dummy half to score, he beat nearly the whole team.
"In the semi-final against Hills Sports in golden point, Jarome kicked the field goal to win us the game."
Greg Beacroft, Patrician Brothers College Blacktown, coached May in the school's 2012, 2014 and 2014 Schoolboy Cup sides
"He was always really talented. In 2012 when we won the national title, Tyrone came off the bench for us and played a halfback utility role for us when he was 16. In 2013 and 2014, he alternated between five-eighth and fullback."
"He'd often volunteer around the school. I remember in 2014 we had a whole school assembly and we and a kid needed to do a big reading. Kids were reluctant to do it, because it was a 15 minute reading. But I when asked Tyrone to do it, and he just said 'yes'."
Greg Beacroft, Patrician Brothers College Blacktown, coached Naden in the school's 2013 Schoolboy Cup side
"When he came down from Wellington, Penrith signed him, he lived with a house family in 2013, then he made a good friend at school and lived with that family in 2014.
"Brent played in the Schoolboy Cup in 2013, but in 2014 he couldn't play because he was 19-years-old. So he was at school that year, but he just played footy for Penrith. He still supported us at games.
"The thing about Brent is that he never gives up. When you watch him play and at training, someone kicks the ball, everyone thinks it's going to give up, 9/10 people give up, but Brent doesn't. He just always keeps fighting. He's won Penrith games this year where he's chased it in goal and not given up.
"He was very tough, aggressive, always enthusiastic, just like he is now.
"He was always happy, Stephen and Brent were both so full of energy."
Alan Utanga - Zane's former Pacific Sharks coach and high school teacher
"Zane was among a group of very talented players of the oval ball from Tokoroa. In the playing group ahead of Zane was Issac John and Quaide Cooper. So I guess he was destined for great things and fortunately picked up by a NRL player manager.
"As a youngster Zane was oversized for his age and had a father, Tony Tetevano, who was the epitome of rugby league in Tokoroa.
"With a role model Dad to follow and direction from his grandparents, Zane is who he is today - well rounded, culturally sensitive, respectful, determined and a gentleman.
"Zane was a proud Tokoroa Pacific Shark like his father and founding members in his grandparents.
"We wish Zane all the best in the 2020 NRL GF and look forward to him bringing home another glimpse of the coveted NRL trophy, a symbol of supremacy in human endeavour for
humble individuals from the timber town of Tokoroa."
William Cooper - James's former coach and Maori language teacher at Whangarei Boys High School
"James is pretty quiet, he doesn't say much. But I hear he says a lot more now than when he was with us.
"He played back then like he does now, physical and scraggy.
"We had a nickname for him, because of the way he was, we called him a predator. He was unassuming and quiet but on the field he was a real menace.
"He was punishing on the field. It wasn't enough to tackle someone, he would try and drag them backwards.
"When the full-time whistle went he would be quiet as a mouse again.
"When he played for us, we had some pretty good seniors above him but that never phased him, he just played his game and played hard.
"He was a boarder at our school hostel because he lived further north out in the rural areas. A lot of those who he was boarding with loved their footy and they would hang out a lot. While everyone was out going partying, James didn't, he would stay back and help at the hostel."
Chad Ndaira - former coach at Kingsgrove Colts
"He was a really good kid, he was always determined and tried hard. Josh was an easy kid to coach.
"He always had the ability. When I coached him he played fullback and I still talk to the young kids at the club about how hard Josh worked to get where he is today.
"His tackle busts and his metreage, it hasn't changed. He was like that, damaging, back then, too.
"It wasn't until he was 19 years old before he made it to grade from our club. I tell the kids you don't have to play Harold Mattews and SG Ball because they get turned off if they don't make those sides. But Josh was 19 before he was picked up by a NRL club.
"He is proof that there is hope for everyone if you remain determined.
"He was also as committed to his six pack back then as he is now."
Hassan Kowaider - Former president of the Berala Bears
"He was one of the best out on the field every weekend but never got picked in any of the development NRL sides in under 16, 17 or 18s at the Bulldogs.
"He was playing at Peter Hislop Park one weekend and there was a South Sydney scout at the game and he came over to me and asked who was the player wearing the No. 6 jumper, it was Api.
"The scout invited Api to go trail for South Sydney at North Sydney Oval. Two years later he played in a grand final for the Rabbitohs.
"He wasn't a standout but every time he got the ball something was happening off him. Api just had that speed out of dummy half, what he is doing at NRL level, he did that when he was younger, too.
Peter Gordon - Head of sport at Arndell Anglican College
"Mitch was involved in our rugby program at school. He was always selected for the zone sides and at higher up levels, too.
"But the one thing that really sticks out about Mitch was that he was absolutely fearless. He was quite small at school in comparison to what he is now but he would have no fear tackling someone who was 6 foot 3 inches and weighed 20 kilograms heavier than him.
"He would just go in for the tackle and take them down. It was his fearlessness that made me think he had what it takes to go to the next level and sure enough he did.
Kurt Richards - Kurt's NYC coach at the Brisbane Broncos
"He was a late developer. I don't think he played a lot of junior representative footy but he got an opportunity to come over from Ipswich to the Broncos to play in the NYC.
"Right from the word go, he had a fair bit of talent. But the best thing about him was that he was a really hard worker.
"In attack, he always wanted to be on the ball so he would chase the ball around the park.
"He also had some good footwork but he was also a tall kid as well. But when got into the weights as well, he's just flourished from there."
Nigel Greive. Director of Sports and Activities at Ipswich Grammar School
"Kurt was a big rangy boy, when he was with us he was lean and strong and a diverse athlete. He was very handy at track and field. Kurt did really well at triple jump and the 400 metre relay. He was exactly what most recruitment agents look for, big frame and athletic."
James Pickering - coaches James in Jersey Flegg at the Roosters
"What stood out to me was in the pre-season - they were pretty hard. We used to train at ES Marks Field in Kensington - we'd do a lap around Centennial Park and back as a time trial.
"Everyone came in except Jimmy, and our manager said 'where is this kid, surely he can't be that far behind' so we jumped in the car and went to Centennial Park and there he was, still running around there.
"He actually had a fracture in his foot, and he was on his third lap. He didn't realise we were only doing one lap.
"That put him a bit behind, so we put him back to A-grade footy with Paddington, his junior club.
"But he never whinged, he never complained, he just bided his time and when he got the opportunity to come back into the team he never looked back from there."
Mark Hughes - coached Liam in Under 18s for Temora Dragons
"When he was 17 he got called up in the first grade squad regularly when (former Dragons and Titans prop) Michael Henderson was coaching and he just loved him.
"He might not have been the biggest kid but he was always well built, very disciplined, very coachable. Hendo found that and I found that all the way through.
"The thing that really stands out is the pressure he's put on himself to make his family proud. They're a very strong family, and a proud one.
"The passing of his older brother was devastating, but he's turned that into a positive where that is his motivation.
"He brings it up so often and I don't know how he talks about it - it makes me come to tears hearing it, let alone being in his shoes. That's the thing that sticks in my mind, the drive, the determination he has is astounding."
Brett Field - club official at Blacktown Workers
"He played a fair bit of hooker before he moved out to the wing but his finishes as a winger, his tackle busts, they were just unbelievable, he could beat three or four players and get to the tryline.
"I was junior vice president at Blacktown Workers when he came to us from Under 15s to Under 17s. Seeing him around the field with his big speaker, that's something I remember. He carries that thing everywhere he goes, he always had his music blaring in the changerooms.
"I wasn't really up with the young hip songs - but there was nothing better for him than getting around the boys. That boombox, that's a trademark for Brian these days."
John Webster - coached Moses in Under 18s for St Mary's Saints
"He was playing in SG Ball at the time and on his nights off from SG Ball training he'd come to club training - I'd have to pull him out of doing fitness drills. I'd say 'mate, I don't want your coaches going off at me cause you keep doing extras'.
"He moved from New Zealand over to Mt Druitt and the thing about kids from Mt Druitt is if they want something, they're going to get it. They have that drive, they're going to get it.
"And the ones who don't make it are the ones who get distracted and you could tell from the start Moses wasn't one of those kids who would be distracted.
"All the things Gus says about him rocking up from work straight to training, I've seen all that first-hand myself and not only that, he'd pull blokes along with him. They'd be dropping out and he'd pull them along. I'm that proud of him."
Bernard Williams - coached Isaah for Dubbo CYMS
"He was always a good kid, he always had that about him and he's turned into a quality man and he's become a real leader for Penrith. He's always had that in him.
"He was one of those kids who by the time he played Under 18s and a bit of first grade he was always composed with how he handled it. It didn't change his attitude to the game or his mates, he was always balanced like that.
"His rise was pretty quick. But like he's done with everything, he saw an opportunity and he took it.
"A lot of kids sit back and wait for things to fall into their lap but he made sure he was ready to go when his opportunity came. It's given him the chance to grow into the footballer he is today.
"In Under 18s he was captain and they won the comp, and his leadership qualities come back to how he treats everyone equally. If you're the best player in the side or a struggling footballer he's just got a knack - he can keep a side together.
"If you spoke to him today about his closest mates a lot of them would come from that footy side."
Phillip Beaumont, coached Dylan for Bellingen Valley-Dorrigo Magpies
"He always played up a year because we were short of numbers. He'd play his game, then back up for me, that was from Under 8s through to Under 16s, the whole way through.
"Even a year above he was always one of my stars. He'd give 100 per cent - or 120 per cent actually.
"He's always done extras - from the age of about 13 he decided he wanted to make it so he'd do extra boxing training, he really looked after his diet, he covered all bases.
He used to player Under 18s, reserves and first grade all on the same day. He would have been 17 doing that, he was always super keen.
"We were a bit of a struggling club. There were almost no grand final days when he lifted the trophy, they won it Under 10s but that was it. Him playing in an NRL grand final is mind-blowing.
"It's more or less the world stage, and putting Dorrigo on the map is unbelievable, we're just a little dot in New South Wales with a population of a thousand.
"It shows the guys in this town it can be done, you can get there through hard work and dedication. It's a major thing for the town, we're all starting to dress up in Penrith colours."
Originally published as The coaches who turned cubs into Panthers