Developing success: the rise of Penrith, the fall of Canterbury

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Robert Crosby takes a look at the contrasting fortunes experienced by Penrith and Canterbury over the past six seasons.

Round 1, 2012.

"Masterminded by current premiership winning coach Des Hasler, Canterbury has ensured Ivan Cleary's tenure as Panthers coach begins with a loss, after the Bulldogs recorded a 22-14 win at Penrith."

Six years later the fortunes facing the combatants of Friday's fixture have changed considerably.

While it may appear to be a tenuous conclusion to draw, the fates of Penrith and Canterbury have been intriguingly aligned over the past six seasons. 

With both clubs appointing coaches fresh off the achievements of the 2011 grand final, the philosophies of achieving success varied greatly to the extent that while initial triumphs were gained through novel tactics, the key to establishing enduring results lay in player development.

In Phil Gould's first full season as General Manager of Football at Penrith, the decision to appoint Ivan Cleary, signed from a club renown for bringing junior players through to first grade, resulted in short-term pain on the scoreboard with a dispiriting 15th placed finish.
 
Hamstrung by a mismanaged salary cap and with a limited sense of connection between the roster and the local region, the decision to take a holistic view and identify the potential of investing in junior talent resulted in a vastly different roster six seasons later. 

Using 23 players in first grade over the first seven weeks of 2018, 14 of those players have made their debuts for Penrith having progressed through the lower grades, with the likes of Isaah Yeo, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and most recently Jack Hetherington playing leading roles in helping the club achieve two National Youth Competition titles (2013, 2016), two reserve grade premierships (2014, 2017) along with claiming the 2017 State Championship. 

As a result of this direction, along with recruiting well-established talent and consciously pivoting following the replacement of Ivan Cleary with Anthony Griffin in the wake of an anomalous 2015 regression, the Panthers have reaped the rewards on the ladder with semi final finishes in the past two seasons, while being entrenched within the highly coveted top four after the first two months of the competition.

In contrast to the Panthers development strategy, the approach favoured by Canterbury after securing the coup of dual premiership winning coach Des Hasler, focussed on a forward-dominated strategy to enable the side's prodigious talent Ben Barba the freedom to single-handedly impact the outcome of matches. 

Standing out from all other competitors in style and placement on the ladder in 2012, the early results the Bulldogs achieved in finishing as minor premiers and defeated grand finalists suggested Hasler's tactics would deliver a highly sought premiership. 

Over the following four years the Bulldogs featured regularly in the play-offs, even qualifying for a second decider in 2014 following a stellar finals run ultimately brought to a close by the undeniable South Sydney juggernaut, yet despite managing above average win-loss records, the departure of Barba, a preference to poach talent and the increasing awareness of the initially novel game plan from the other 15 clubs saw the side progressively deteriorate to the point that having limped into the 2016 finals series, the internal frustrations present throughout the playing ranks resulted in a shattering exit at the hands of the Panthers. 

Unwilling to accept the declining results that culminated in the NRL side missing the finals for the first time since 2011, the Canterbury hierarchy elected to appoint former premiership winning player Dean Pay to the top job, despite earlier extending Hasler's contract for a further two seasons, resulting in an on-going legal drama. 

In attempting to justify the change of coach as necessary to return the Bulldogs to their former glory, the impact of Hasler's management of the salary cap has severely hampered the side's ability to conduct an overhaul of the roster, leaving a club regarded as both ‘The Entertainers' and ‘Dogs of War' with an absence of recognised talent to draw upon during trying times.

As a result of the varying strategies implement by Penrith and Canterbury earlier in the decade, the fortunes of the two clubs have shifted greatly. 

Outlining a plan to see the majority of first grade talent develop through emerging pathways to ensure a productive stream of players to draw upon for years to come, the Panthers have established a blueprint for success emulated by rivals such as Newcastle, while being willing to make difficult roster decisions in the interest of ensuring the club succeeds beyond the present. 

Having placed on-field success above all else, the Bulldogs have been made to face the consequences of an inability to capitalise upon their premiership window with the financial implications of heavily back-ended deals, the lack of junior development and a costly stubbornness in their style of play leaving the side with few options of improving their fortunes in the immediate future. 

With lessons to be drawn from the respective cases, the test for both Penrith and Canterbury as they face off at the foot of the mountains on Friday night will be whether either side is defined by their past actions or capable of forging a path towards the ultimate rugby league prize based solely on their current merits.

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