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Penrith Panthers’ Path to Victory and Talent Retention

Oct 11, 2023

In the wake of Penrith Panthers’ remarkable third Grand Final victory, we had the privilege of speaking with Lee Hopkins, the Head of Pathways at the club. Following the thrilling win over the Brisbane Broncos in the NRL Grand Final, Hopkins shared insights into the future of the game and the challenges of nurturing and retaining young talent in a league where rival clubs are constantly poaching rising stars. 

Hopkins, who has a long history with the Panthers, spoke about his journey with the club. Having played for the Panthers in the late 1990’s and early 2000, he returned as a coach in 2010 before taking on his current role as Head of Pathways. 

The Pathways program at Penrith Panthers is crucial in identifying and developing talent within the club. Hopkins explained that idea to ‘build from within’ was a strategy developed 10 years ago by  Panthers high performance manager, Matt Cameron and recruitment head, Jim Jones. All development squads are considered part of this program. When asked about the club’s success in nurturing homegrown talent, he emphasised the Panthers ability to execute on this strategy by believing in their ability to develop players who can represent the club at the highest level.

Panthers Pathways manager Lee Hopkins puts juniors through their paces at training.

The Penrith region boasts a large pool of junior talent from a vast geographic region extending from Blacktown to Katoomba out to Badgery’s Creek and throughout the Hawkesbury. Panthers Junior League is the largest Rugby League district in the world with more than 580 teams across all age groups, starting from as young as 4 years old. Over the past 10 years the club has grown strongly with almost 9000 players across both male and female competition. Hopkins acknowledged the immense size of the region the Junior League have to manage and the challenges it presents in scouting and developing the best young players.

However, the Panthers are increasingly facing a new challenge. Hopkins pointed out that they are increasingly becoming a target for other clubs looking to poach their promising young players. The club’s success in nurturing talent has put a target on their back, with rival teams trying to lure away their future stars. “We seem to be a target now for every other NRL club trying to sign our young kids. That’s a constant battle for us at the moment. We are constantly fighting other clubs trying to sign our best young kids,” Hopkins said.

When asked about how they plan to address this issue, Hopkins mentioned the importance of having a solid recruitment and performance team that is focused on providing the best possible pathway and support for young talents. While they acknowledge that they can’t keep all the players, they are determined to retain as many as possible.

One of the unique aspects of Penrith Panthers is the strong sentiment of loyalty and community among their juniors. Hopkins emphasised that many young players aspire to stay with the club if they can. The club’s NRL players and staff play a crucial role in fostering this sense of community, which sets them apart from other clubs.

Hopkins also shared an interesting statistic from earlier in the year, where it was revealed that in round three earlier this year there were enough former Panther’s players playing at other NRL clubs to field another NRL franchise. This statistic highlights the impact of the Penrith system on the NRL. “We could have started a second NRL club with 30 players that are playing for other teams that have all come through our system,” Hopkins said.

Panthers Tarsha Gayle pre-season training session.

The Panthers’ mantra of being a “source of community pride” resonates strongly within the club. Hopkins stressed that their goal is not just to develop players but also to be a positive influence in the community.

“That’s where Ivan (Panther coach Ivan Cleary) deserves a lot of credit. Ivan and his team have a mantra where they want to be a ‘source of community pride’, and they certainly are. What the NRL players do and staff do in the community is second to none. They are phenomenal human beings in that they absolutely love the Penrith area. We are very big on that right across the organisation. Every person who works at the organisation, every player makes sure that, that is 100 per cent what we are doing. We all want to be a source of community pride,”  Hopkins said. 

Reflecting on the Grand Final victory, Hopkins acknowledged that there were moments when it seemed challenging, but the never-give-up attitude of the Panthers prevailed. “You might have thought we were in a bit of trouble but everyone knew our boys were never, ever going to give up. They were never going to stop going at the Bronco’s. As a group they showed that nothing phases them, they will fight right through to the 80th minute,” Hopkins said. 

When asked about his own celebrations, Hopkins laughed and mentioned that the night after the Grand Final was a memorable one. However, he emphasised that the real celebration should be reserved for the players and staff who put in the extraordinary effort. “They are rightly up there with some of the best teams of the modern era,” he said.

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