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4 days ago
Nineteen ninety seven was quite a big time for me - I was in Year 12, and quietly stressing out about the impending exams that would only determine my immediate to long term future.
It will also be remembered as the year that Australia had two rugby league competitions - the original, traditionally based Australian Rugby League (ARL), and the new, quite bold Superleague.
Now, I'm not going to get into a discussion about which one was the best competition - I was a supporter of both, and I thought that both of them had their good and bad points.
However, I must admit that I more or less watched Superleague through default, only because my team, the Panthers, were in that competition.
Decked out in a strip that could be best described as "zebra roadkill", the team from the foot of the Blue Mountains actually enjoyed a relatively successful season. After quite a few lean years following the premiership glory of '91, characterised by internal dramas and the constant failure to qualify for the finals, the 1997 version of the Penrith Panthers made the 5 team finals series.
It was a year where a teenage sensation was thrust into the limelight, a goalkicking centre finally realised his true potential, and there was the return of the "prodigal son" after a couple of years across the Tasman.
Craig Gower, Ryan Girdler and Greg Alexander all had key roles in the on field success of the Panthers.
Even though he had made his first grade debut the year before, Gower burst on to the scene in 1997. Playing in the hooker role, his deft skills were soon rewarded with representative honours. At the raw age of 18, he was selected as the Australian halfback during the end of season Great Britain tour.
Girdler had a stellar year. He was always considered as a creative and ball-running centre who could kick goals. In 1997, he was putting in those performances on a regular basis, and was also nailing the conversions from all over the place. Just like Gower, he was named in the NSW and Australian squads.
After 2 years playing for the Auckland Warriors, "Brandy" Alexander made a return home, and was promptly regained the halfback and captain roles. His early season form turned the clock back a number of years, and was a surprise selection for NSW in the opening match of the Tri-series, before injuring his foot. He would play precious little for the rest of the year - not that it put that much of a dent into the Panthers charge.
It was a season of quite some memorable performances. The one that sticks out the most was the 27-26 win against the Broncos at Penrith in a Monday night game, with a Gower field goal the only difference in a very entertaining match.
Also, Peter Jorgenson's post try celebrations (the aeroplane) were an amusing sidelight.
But it was also quite a controversial year as well, and it was all to do with what ended up being quite a farcical World Club Challenge tournament. The Panthers won all 6 games against their English opposition (Bradford, Warrington and St. Helens on a home and away basis), yet did not qualify for the finals - even though English teams that had won less games managed to do so.
The Panthers ended up finishing 5th at the end of 22 rounds, and were drawn to play the Bulldogs in the first week at Belmore. Penrith snuck away with a one point win, but the run ended down in Canberra the following week, with quite a heavy defeat.
All in all, it was a relatively successful year. The re-unification the following year (the National Rugby League in 1998) promised quite a lot, but it was back to what us fans had become accustomed to - relative mediocrity. 1996 in itself was quite an ordinary year too, so 1997 definitely stands out like a bright beacon. It was great while it lasted though.
It was a bright spot in a decade that was heavily punctuated at the start by premiership glory, but pretty much sweet little to really cheer about for the rest of it.
However, it did establish two genuine superstars who would both, in time, make their mark.
And also, as a unit, it showed what the Panthers were truly capable of when they played to their potential.
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