There is a real sense of brotherhood at the Penrith Panthers, but the defending NRL champions are also happy for their 2022 grand final rivals Parramatta to be part of the family.
‘You can call us daddy,’ Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai quipped ahead of the premiership decider on Sunday.
His cheeky comment is about the changing of the guard in Sydney’s West, where the Panthers have long been regarded as ‘little brother’ to Parramatta, even though the Eels have failed to win a premiership since 1986.
Brian To’o and Jarome Luai share a joke after a Penrith Panthers NRL training session
While Parramatta have not been able to bring the Provan-Summons Trophy home since then, the Eels have been regular contenders while the Panthers have struggled to make the eight for long periods of time.
Parramatta has also long been touted as Western Sydney’s breeding ground of rugby league talent
‘Things have changed,’ To’o told the SMH.
To’o poses for photographs for fans during a Penrith Panthers NRL training session and fan day
Around half of the current Panthers side, playing in their third successive grand final, come from the local area. On top of that, 14 of the 17 players in the decider made their NRL debut for Penrith.
‘There aren’t that many kids coming through the Parramatta system that are from the west. The majority of the people that are in the Parramatta team come from other countries or other parts of NSW … or even Penrith,’ To’o said.
‘It’s pretty cool to see how many of us Penrith juniors have come through the lower grades up to the big leagues.
‘It’s pretty special to see like Taylan May and Izack Tago come through this year.’
To’o and Luai celebrate after the 2021 NRL grand final win over the South Sydney Rabbitohs
Luai added that the current Penrith side better represented the people and players of western Sydney than the current Eels.
‘We’re both western Sydney, but our team has been together for a long time and played a lot of footy together,’ Luai said.
‘I think we’re home-grown. We represent our people. Western Sydney is our home. Every time we put this jersey on we represent our home. We just want to compare ourselves to the best. It’s an awesome feeling when you’ve come through the grades and make your mark on the biggest stage.
‘Everyone knows where you’ve come from ever since you were little in the area. People always talk about the memories they have of you when you were younger playing footy for the local junior clubs.’
The Penrith Panthers aren’t just family in a figurative sense, with Ivan Cleary as coach and his superstar son Nathan Cleary at halfback, there is a blood connection at the club as well.
However that bond is not likely to extent to Nathan’s sister Indi, who was reportedly ‘in the vicinity’ of the NRL trophy last year when it was knocked from a table near a dance floor and broken after the Panthers grand final triumph.
Clearly was asked directly by the Daily Telegraph if time had mended all wounds and whether Indi would be allowed near the trophy again this year if Penrith win.
Bec, Jett, Milaya, Nathan and Indi Cleary celebrate after the 2021 NRL grand final victory
‘No chance — she is banned if we win it,’ Cleary joked.
While it is the third time Nathan has steered the Panthers and his son Nathan to an NRL decider, he said the moment was still enormous for their family.
‘It’s extremely special. There are so many things that are cool about playing in a grand final. Just getting here, everything that goes with it, and just because we’ve done it three times doesn’t make it any less special,’ he said.
Nathan Cleary hugs his father and coach Ivan Cleary after winning the 2021 NRL grand final
But Ivan said that family ties were blocked out in the lead-up to the big game in order to remain focused on the task at hand.
‘It’s something you don’t really think about much any more [being with Nathan]. I enjoy every day going to work with ‘Nat’. Sunday will be no different,’ he said.
‘It’s become the norm now, and it’s not something you really notice until after the year is done when you reflect.
‘I’m very grateful to be in this position … it’s unique. When it’s all said and done and we’re both retired, we can reflect on what it was, but at the moment it’s just a job.’