Rugby league pioneers series: The 1967 Penrith Panthers

A lot of new clubs have come along since I first became interested in rugby league back in the 1960s. Many, like the Western Reds, the Hunter Mariners and various versions of the Gold Coast have come and gone, while others like the Penrith Panthers, the Brisbane Broncos and the Melbourne Storm have been in it for the long haul, and are key players in today’s competition.

In this series, I’ll pay tribute to the pioneers of each of the eleven surviving clubs who entered the league since 1960, and tell you a little about who they were and where they came from. Today, the men from the foot of the mountains, the Penrith Panthers.

Originally part of the Parramatta juniors, the Penrith A Grade club were seen more as a thorn in the Eels side than as a junior nursery, and the Penrith club were keen to establish their own identity. Their first significant step toward independence was to join the ten-team Second Division competition when it was established in 1962, along with clubs including Wentworthville, Ryde-Eastwood and Cronulla-Caringbah.

Wearing their royal blue and white strip, they also competed with some success in the State Cup against the top-tier sides from 1964, and by 1966 word was out that two second-division teams would be added to the NSWRL competition in 1967. Caringbah-Cronulla were one team certain of promotion, while the other spot was a tussle between Penrith, and 1964 and 1965 second-division premiers, Wentworthville.

Penrith set their sights on winning the 1966 second division premiership in order to boost their case for promotion, and recruited a number of seasoned first graders from the NSWRL competition. They went on to defeat Wentworthville 9-7 in the final at Cumberland Oval on August 13, 1966 but they could have saved their legs, as thanks to the tireless campaigning of club stalwarts including Roger Cowan and Merv Cartwright, the NSWRL had already decided that Penrith would join Cronulla in the big league, as their strategic western Sydney location was preferred to that of Wentworthville, which was just on Parramatta’s doorstep.

Penrith’s first foray into the big time was the 1967 Preseason Cup, and they acquitted themselves well, defeating both Cronulla and Parramatta, before losing to South Sydney and Balmain. Then, the big day finally arrived, and they played their first-ever premiership game against Canterbury at Belmore Sports Ground on 2 April 1967 in front of a crowd of over 10,000, and were narrowly defeated by 15 points to 12.

Here’s the team that ran out for Penrith that afternoon, wearing white shorts and a chocolate brown jersey with a white V and shoulder saddle. The “chocolate soldiers” had arrived!

*Numbers in brackets are the total first grade games the player played for Penrith, and note that under the numbering system of the time, the hooker is number 12 and the lock is number 8.

1. Bill Tonkin (22)

Tonkin was better known as a back-rower when he came to Penrith in 1967 via Balmain, Western Suburbs and finally South Sydney, where he had been playing reserve grade for several seasons. He had only limited opportunities in the top grade and retired at the end of the 1968 season.

2. Bob Landers (68)

Landers played over 108 games for Eastern Suburbs before plying his trade in England for a couple of years and then joining Penrith in 1966 for their successful assault on the Second Division premiership. He was a top-flight goal kicker and scored 428 first grade points for the Panthers before his retirement at the end of the 1970 season. He was Penrith’s top point scorer in their first season with 88 points, and equal top try scorer with David Applebee with six.

3. Ern Gillon (63)

Gillon made his first grade debut for Parramatta in 1966 and joined the Panthers in 1967, spending four seasons at the foot of the mountains before retiring at the end of 1970. He was a very strong defender and was the inaugural winner of the club’s player of the year award.

4. Wayne Peckham (41)

Hailing from Moree, Peckham was a tough and fearless outside back who has the distinction of being the club’s first indigenous player. He had three years with the Panthers and then headed to Canterbury in 1970 where he stayed until his retirement in 1972.

5. David Applebee (89)

Applebee was a hard-running and tough-tackling centre or winger and played for Oakdale in the unforgiving Group 6 competition before being signed by Penrith at the end of 1966. He was Penrith’s equal top try scorer in 1967 with six tries, and became Penrith’s first-ever representative player when selected for City Firsts in 1967. He moved to QLD at the end of 1972 to continue his career and went on to represent QLD in the 1973 interstate series.

6. Maurie Raper (51)

The younger brother of an immortal, Maurie Raper played his junior football for both Wests and Canterbury before heading to QLD where he was spotted having a blinder for the Rockhampton side against the touring Great Britain team. Penrith signed him and he played for the Panthers from 1967 to 1970, before finishing his first grade career with Cronulla in 1974.

7. Laurie Fagan (77)

Fagan was a Balmain favourite until he lost his place in the first grade side following the arrival of English test star David Bolton and he was signed by Penrith for the 1967 season. He has the distinction of being the Panthers’ first try scorer when he crossed twice against Canterbury in their first premiership game, and he captained the club for much of the 1967 season. He left Penrith at the end of 1970 and went on to become a successful coach in the Second Division.

8. Andrew ‘Tony’ Brown (C) (3)

Brown was one of the best five-eighths in the game during his nine-year career with Newtown, and he had played eleven tests for Australia and nine times for NSW. He left Newtown to lead Penrith in the second division in 1965 and was the Panthers’ captain in their first premiership match. Injuries curtailed his first grade career in 1967 after just three appearances in the top grade, but he went on to coach lower grades for the Panthers.

9. Wall Crust (37)

Crust was a rugged backrower who joined the Panthers in 1966 while they were still in the second division. He was in and out of first grade with the Panthers until he transferred to the Newcastle competition during the 1969 season.

10. Bill McCall (22)

McCall notched up over 50 first grade games with Eastern Suburbs and Parramatta between 1958 and 1963 before joining Penrith in the Second Division. He was part of their 1966 second-division premiership team and played every game for the Panthers in 1967 before retiring from the big time at the end of that year.

11. Geoff Waldie (16)

Waldie made his debut for Eastern Suburbs in 1962 and had five seasons at Bondi before joining Penrith in 1967. He left Penrith at the end of the season to play in the Newcastle competition.

12. Ron Workman (93)

Workman had six unremarkable seasons with Parramatta before heading to Vietnam with the RAAF in 1965, and joined Penrith on his return in 1967. He was a very tough and effective hooker and a stalwart of the club in their early days, and went on to captain the team. He played in North Queensland after leaving the Panthers at the end of 1972 but returned to the club once he hung up his boots to work in a management role at the club.

13. Barry Harris (15)

Harris had played over 70 games for Newtown and South Sydney, as well as representing both NSW Country and NSW, before joining Penrith in 1967. He retired at the end of that year and spent some time as first grade coach in 1975 and 1976 following the resignation of Mick Stephenson.

Coach – Leo Trevena (44)

Trevena was a very good halfback in his playing days and was part of Western Suburbs 1952 premiership-winning team. He became captain/coach of the Panthers in 1957 while they were in the second division, eventually leading them to the second division premiership in 1966 and to the big time in the NSWRL in 1967. He coached the team throughout their inaugural season, before being replaced by Bob Boland for the next five seasons. He then replaced Boland in 1973, leading them to their first wooden spoon that year.

Penrith used 25 players in first grade in their first season, and apart from those mentioned above, some other notable pioneer players were:

Grahame Moran (121)

A very good centre and five-eighth who joined the club from Taree and went on to represent NSW in 1970.

George Piper (25)

A tough front-rower who played for Balmain before he joined Penrith and who died from injuries suffered in a fight in Balmain at the end of the 1968 season.

Doug Ricketson (3)

A stylish centre who joined Penrith while they were in the second division but had his career cut short by injury in 1967. Father of Roosters stalwart Luke Ricketson.

Hardly a bunch of household names, and probably long forgotten by all but the most staunch Penrith supporter, but they were there on day one, and will always be remembered as the pioneers who set things in motion for the club.

Not surprisingly, Penrith struggled in their first season, finishing second last on the table, 5 points ahead of fellow debutantes, Cronulla. But it wasn’t all bad news, as they won five of their 22 games and drew two, with their season highlight coming in round 4 when they rolled reigning premiers St George 24-12 in just their second match at Penrith Park in front of over 12,000 delirious fans. It was a tough beginning for a club made up of tough men.

I wonder if any of the Penrith pioneers from 1967 could even imagine the success that the club is enjoying today?

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Amelia J. Bell

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