Panthers break new ground for league at Boys’ High
It’s a school steeped in rugby union history, producing more than 40 All Blacks in its 135-year existence.
But the Penrith Panthers broke new ground on Wednesday when the NRL side trained on Christchurch Boys’ High School’s rugby field ahead of their premiership encounter with the New Zealand Warriors at AMI Stadium on Saturday.
With CBHS’s iconic old buildings and the autumn colours providing a picturesque backdrop on an unseasonably warm May morning, Panthers coach Anthony ‘Hook’ Griffin and legendary trainer Ronnie Palmer put the first-grade squad through their paces.
Students had the opportunity to watch the likes of Australian Test reps Trent Merrin and Josh Mansour, former NSW Origin halves Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace, burgeoning superstar and young captain Matt Moylan, Kiwi internationals Peta Hiku, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Sam McKendry and Suaia Matagi, and young guns Bryce Cartwright, Tyrone Peachey and Reagan Campbell-Gillard hone their skills up close.
The Panthers arrived in Christchurch late on Tuesday night in the first instalment of the club’s four-year agreement with Christchurch City Council to bring an NRL fixture to the city each season.
The 5pm showdown with the Warriors at AMI Stadium – the spiritual home of Canterbury rugby league when it was known as Addington Showgrounds – is almost sold out, with only single tickets remaining for the Round 10 encounter.
“It’s exciting, it’s always nice to play in front of a big crowd and I’m sure the players are going to enjoy that,” Griffin said after the training session.
“We’re very pleased, as a team and as a club, to know that this association for the first time has produced a sell-out.
“We’re really looking forward to Saturday night.”
The Panthers will also visit schools and conduct training sessions with junior teams during their stay this week, making a commitment to assist in the development of the code in the Canterbury region by delivering an NRL-run programme for youngsters, which focuses on a message of wellbeing and positive behaviour – along with some rugby league skills.
Griffin said the Panthers were excited to be in camp in Christchurch, with the trip breaking up the grind of a long and arduous NRL season.
“I really enjoy travelling, particularly coming to towns like this that are trying to do something for the game,” the former Brisbane Broncos coach said.
“Between Penrith and Christchurch, hopefully we form a long relationship and we’ll be here for a long time.
“I thought it would be (a sell-out), particularly playing the Warriors over here, that there would be a big interest in the game.
“Behind the scenes there’s a lot of work that’s been going on, so it’s great that there’s going to be 18,000 there.”
Skipper Moylan revealed his team was prepared for a relatively hostile reception playing the Warriors in New Zealand, despite the classification of Saturday’s match as a ‘home’ game for Penrith.
“It’s going to be a bit different, but we’re all looking forward to it,” Moylan said.
“We’re pretty excited about coming over here and playing in Christchurch. It’s the first time for a lot of us coming over, so it’s a good experience.
“Hopefully we’ve got a bit of support there and we can come away with the two points.”
Penrith has a strong Kiwi flavour with Hiku, Watene-Zelezniak, McKendry, Matagi and rookie forward James Fisher-Harris all named in the 18-man squad. Test centre Dean Whare and boom five-eighth Te Maire Martin are on the Panthers’ long-term injured list.
“I think they always enjoy coming over and playing against the Kiwi fellas over here,” Moylan said.
“I think ‘Dal’ (Watene-Zelezniak) having played that Test match last week, and ‘Pet’ (Hiku) having played a fair few Test matches for the Kiwis as well, they’re going to enjoy the rivalry with the (Kiwis) teammates that they’ve played with.”
The staging of an NRL match is a massive boon for rugby league fans in Canterbury and the code itself, but it’s also extremely important in the context of both teams’ campaigns. The Panthers and Warriors both have 4-5 records after nine rounds and are part of a four-team logjam tied for eighth spot.
Panthers forward Jeremy Latimore, who played for the Warriors in 2010-11, and Warriors enforcer Ben Matulino are the only survivors from the last NRL fixture in Christchurch – the Warriors’ epic 20-18 victory over Sydney Roosters at the old AMI Stadium (Lancaster Park) in 2010.
The Panthers will be at South New Brighton School at 11.45am tomorrow, while the Warriors are conducting a signing session at Harvey Norman at 4pm on Friday.
WILL EVANS – CANTERBURY RUGBY LEAGUE
(Photo Credit: Kevin Clarke – CMGSPORT ACTION IMAGES)