With the most grand final wins in Canterbury Rugby League history – and an incredible nine appearances in the big one since 2005 – the Hornby Panthers’ perennial heavyweight status is assured and well-deserved.

But an unavoidable storyline hovers over the club’s 2019 Massetti Cup campaign: Hornby is coming into the season on the back of a record third consecutive grand final loss, going down to Linwood in all three deciders from 2016-18.

So how does a team pick themselves up and mount another challenge after more than their share of heartbreak?

“I’ve been asked that quite a few times, and I think the three losses has made us stronger as a group,” Panthers coach Jed Lawrie said.

“The playing group we’ve got now, through those losses, it just made us tighter and tighter. It just keeps making them hungry to turn back up, which is a good asset to have as a coach.”

The Panthers’ 2018 grand final defeat was arguably the most gut-wrenching of the lot, edged 20-16 by the Keas in a thriller after giving up a late 12-point lead.

But Lawrie is confident that showing confirmed his side is getting closer to knocking off their archrivals.

“You could see the pain in everyone’s faces, but what we talked about in the sheds afterwards is probably something that’s going to motivate us this year and help us go one further.”

Hornby have retained a stable squad boasting an enviable blend of experience, class, youth and potential.

Outstanding forward prospect Caius Faatili – who debuted for the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls against the Warriors reserve grade team in February – is expected to make a big impression in his first season at Massetti Cup level, and will be joined by Panthers 18s teammate Jordan Coleman.

Jordan Campbell – Hornby halfback Brad’s brother – and Regan Stanton also bolster the club’s West Coast contingent.

Meanwhile, slick half Tevin Arona returns to Hornby after two years with the Warriors’ NSW Cup squad, and David Tongo Tongo and Leo Toomalatai are also back in the Panthers’ ranks.

Arona also played in the Rockcote Bulls’ historic pre-season fixture alongside Brad Campbell, but a torn pectoral is set to sideline him until the second half of the season. The coach has plenty of playmaking alternatives, however.

“We’re blessed with a few options in the halves, with Sean Spooner and ‘Baxy’ (James Baxendale) able to fill that role,” Lawrie said.

“We’ve got a bit of depth there but we’re looking for Brad to be more our general now and lead us around.”

While Campbell shapes as the Panthers’ linchpin, the stalwart trio of captain Baxendale, Corey Lawrie and Rulon Nutira will be crucial to the team’s drive to another late-August shot at glory.

Add in a backline brimming with size and firepower, and the Panthers appear to have every box ticked as they chase down their first premiership since 2013.

Hornby kicks off its campaign against Northern Bulldogs in Kaiapoi on Saturday.

“It’s always a tough road trip to Murphy Park, so it’s probably good to get it out of the way early. I don’t know too much about (the Bulldogs) this year, we’ll just have to wait and see, and concentrate on us. If we play to our best individually we’ll hopefully get a win out there which will be a good start.”

Photo Credit: CMG Sports – Kevin Clarke

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