The NRL grand final result doesn’t matter – Penrith Panthers are already champions

<span>Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

This piece has been surprisingly difficult for me to write. It shouldn’t be. Thinking about the Penrith Panthers takes up a significant percentage of my brain capacity at all times, much to the detriment of my personal life, the reputation of the Guardian, and the productivity of colleagues who make the mistake of showing even a casual interest in league.

I think the problem was that initially I was writing about rugby league. In my first approach I was talking about our hardworking, underappreciated forward pack. A young core whose greatness has become routine to the point of facing undue contempt. A father/son coach and halfback pairing who are 80 minutes away from casting the bronze on their statues at the entrance to the revamped Panther Park. That is all true but it does not tell the story of the Penrith Panthers.

Luckily, I have a better story that does. Last weekend I had the good fortune of being in the crowd to cheer on the Panthers in a comeback win. By pure chance, in a stadium of more than 50,000, directly behind me I saw the father of my high school best friend Steph. He let me know that Steph was in the next bay and we could watch the game together. A remarkable coincidence at the best of times but so much more in these circumstances.

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The last time I’d seen Steph, she was in the oncology ward of Nepean hospital, just over the road from where we first met. She’d been battling cancer for over a year and had recently received the terrible news that it had spread beyond the point of no return. After a seizure in the hospital, we had been advised that she may only have a few days left. Sitting by her side, my friend weary and battling to stay conscious, we spoke about the Panthers. We talked about an upcoming finals series neither of us were certain she’d see.

A team isn’t just the players on the field but the people in the stands

Our friendship was solidified on the hills of Panther Stadium. Those were some barren years for the Penrith faithful. Hope was in short supply. Yet, we’d be there every week – or as often as our fast food jobs would allow – shouting our lungs out the whole match. In fact, the only time I remember Steph not passionately cheering at the football was following the release of a Harry Potter book, when she sat in the bleachers, reading as fast as she could, only looking up when she heard the roar of the crowd. A dork move then and a dork move now. I told her as much that day in the ward. Still, there has never been a more passionate fan.

This week, the Panthers gave back.

Steph’s 32nd birthday falls on the day after the grand final. A recovery fuelled by her trademark stubbornness saw Steph discharged from hospital this week so that she could spend this birthday at home. Her dad, Mick, called Triple M where Panthers legend Mark Geyer hosts the breakfast show. After hearing Steph’s story, Mark and fellow grand final hero Craig Gower travelled out to meet Steph, sit with her family, and share stories of the mighty mountain men. That’s special. Those moments where team meets community, where your heroes step down from the posters on your wall and become part of your life.

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This isn’t a one-off occasion. Penrith Panthers fan groups are filled with stories of players past and present donating their time, memorabilia and anything else on offer to members of the community. A young girl just this week walked away from a training session with signed shoes from charismatic superstar Brian To’o.

When I sat down to write this article, I wanted to write about a team on the verge of greatness. The truth is, this club has already achieved it. Penrith’s performance on the field over the past few years has been the finest football I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. And yet, that is not what I am going to remember from this run.

What I will never forget is sitting side-by-side with my friend as the final whistle blew and our team marched on to a third consecutive grand final. In all honesty, we didn’t know how to react. We even spoke about how all those years on the hill hadn’t prepared us for a team for which winning has become routine. But thinking of her, it’s clear we know a few things. How to fight, how to keep fighting when it feels like all hope is lost, how to bounce back, and how a team isn’t just the players on the field but the people in the stands.

The result doesn’t matter. The Penrith Panthers are already champions. Also, we’re going to win.

  • James Colley is a comedian and head writer for Gruen and Question Everything