Inside Penrith Panthers’ World Club Challenge preparation, involving Manchester City and Warrington Wolves

Ben Olawumi
Ivan Cleary Penrith Panthers World Club Challenge Alamy

Penrith coach Ivan Cleary (left), Warrington boss Sam Burgess (centre) and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola (right)

The last time Penrith made the trip to England for a World Club Challenge, the original ‘Take me to the Clouds Above‘ topped the British charts. Some of the current Panthers pack were barely born. And 20 years on, as the NRL kings, they’re back on British soil loving life ahead of Saturday’s showdown with Wigan Warriors.

Ivan Cleary’s side have been crowned the NRL‘s top dogs three seasons on the spin, but due to COVID, their first crack at a side from the British game in a World Club clash came this time last year.

With then-Super League kings St Helens making the trip Down Under, the Panthers were heavily favoured to triumph. In fact, there were posts on social media from members of the Australian press joking they’d be able to ‘declare’ come half-time.

But, of course, it didn’t turn out that way. Cleary’s men had an off-day, and those in the Red V’s ranks rose to the occasion, Lewis Dodd’s drop goal in golden point extra-time putting the finishing touch on a historic success, the first English side in the Super League era to win a World Club Challenge over in Australia.

The Panthers licked their wounds and after claiming a second straight Minor Premiership, topping the tree, they too enjoyed a historic moment – lifting the NRL title again after a Grand Final against Brisbane Broncos in which they looked down and out.

Cleary’s son Nathan, their star man, shining as he has so often as they scored 18 unanswered points in the last 24 minutes of the clash to overturn a 24-8 deficit, that being the largest comeback victory ever in an NRL showpiece final.

Nathan Cleary Penrith Panthers Alamy
Nathan Cleary (centre) celebrating Penrith’s Grand Final sucess in 2023 with his team-mates

And with that remarkable achievement came opportunity – the opportunity to reclaim their crown as champions of the world.

Inside Penrith Panthers’ preparations for the World Club Challenge

It’s no surprise then that Penrith‘s preparation for Saturday’s sold-out showdown at the DW Stadium has been meticulous, from players’ sleep schedules being tracked to caffeine intake being monitored, and a look at the pitch they’ll be playing on this weekend as soon as it was physically possible.

The contact book has been used heavily too, with every detail possible taken care of, including some team entertainment – an evening out at Manchester City’s Premier League clash with Chelsea in the hospitality section a high point.

Staying in Manchester, Penrith have also been using the Cityzens’ state-of-the-art Etihad Campus training base for their on-field sessions since landing in the UK last Saturday morning.

Elsewhere, ahead of a trip to the DW on Tuesday night, the Panthers had spent the day down the road in the North West with Sam Burgess’ Warrington Wolves, taking part in an opposed session.

Panthers boss Cleary told Love RugbyLeague: “We’ve arranged these sessions and trips through our network, and it’s just amazing how different sporting teams and organisations will come together to help each other out.

“We feel very grateful to be welcomed with open arms, and I’m sure it won’t be like that on Saturday night, but it’s been good!

“We’re happy with the way our preparations have been going, and we’ve still got a little bit to do yet, but come Saturday night there’ll be no excuses from us.”

And despite the overwhelming notion that the NRL is far superior to Super League in terms of its professionalism and everything of that ilk, Cleary admitted there’s still a long way to go for any club involved in our sport to catch up with the likes of the seven-time Premier League champions.

He continued: “We’ve realised we’ve got a fair way to go! It’s all part of the experience, and we just feel really grateful to be able to mix with that sort of organisation.

“Throughout our time here, we’ve felt welcomed by everybody, we’re just stoked to be here and be part of this occasion. It’s on a different level, we’re just thankful to be able to use their facilities and have a look around.”

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Ivan Cleary: ‘We’re very excited to be here’

Often, when Super League teams head Down Under for the World Club Challenge, we’re treated to social media snaps of them basking in the sun and surveying the sights that are on offer.

With the tedious cliche of the ‘great’ British weather aside, it was clear to see that the Panthers aren’t treating this trip over here as a chore, but more of an experience.

As we mentioned in the opening to this article, there are some young pups in their ranks, but regardless of age, there’s still plenty to see and do, as Cleary detailed: “It’s not just about rugby league, it’s about English culture and getting to experience that.

“A lot of our boys have already been over here, but some of them haven’t, so just to be able to come over here as a team at the start of our season, that can help you as well in the sense of being together.

“It’s a great trip that everyone’s been looking forward to since it got pencilled in. We’ve heard some very kind words from Matt (Peet, Wigan head coach) about coming over and facilitating the game, but we’re very excited to be here and I’m sure every one of our crew would say the same thing.”

QUIZ: Can you name every British player to have scored a try in a World Club Challenge?

From training at Manchester City’s state-of-the-art facilities to exploring English culture: Panthers ace Isaah Yeo enjoying ‘wonderful experience’

Isaah Yeo Penrith Panthers Alamy
Isaah Yeo in action for Penrith Panthers in 2023

Loose forward Isaah Yeo was part of the Australia side which lifted the World Cup in Manchester only 15 months ago, but is proof – if needed – of the Panthers‘ enjoyment of their time over here.

He re-affirmed: “We’ve tried our best to experience it all! Obviously we had the Man City game, and that was the first day we flew in, that night.

“It’s obviously been busy with training and what not, but us boys have been going out for food and trying to find some coffee joints floating around.

“We’ve got the day off tomorrow (Wednesday) too, so I think there’s a few of the boys doing a few different things trying to check it all out.

“It’s experience for the squad, a reward for a lot of hard work that went into last season, and it might not happen again for us, so why not make the most of it?

“Tomorrow will be a bit of a relax and us doing what we want to do, checking things out, but then we’ve got two big days before we come and play where preparations will kick straight back in.

“It’s certainly something we’ve looked forward to since the start of January. When it was pencilled in, this was sort of like the reward at the end of a tough pre-season back home.

“We finished up on the Thursday and then flew out here on the Friday, so the boys were all pumped. The feeling around the group, everyone is honestly buzzing at the moment. It’s a wonderful experience for all the boys and being together, it’s been really nice.”

‘You don’t get invited to play in this game, you have to earn the right to play in it’

Way back in 1999, a clash between the Warriors and Panthers was the second ‘officially recognised’ World Club Challenge, after Widnes‘ triumph against Canberra Raiders the year prior.

20 years on, in 2019, Wigan were beaten by Sydney Roosters at the DW, that their most recent crack at being crowned the champions of the world.

And after a five-year absence, Cleary praised the Panthers‘ opponents on Saturday as he discussed the efforts teams go to just to be involved in a World Club showdown.

He said: “You don’t get invited to this game, you have to earn the right to play in it.

“You have to work so hard to win a Championship (league), play well all the way through the year and then you’ve still got to win knockout games through semi-finals and Grand Finals. Both of us have earned this right.

“The World Club Challenge went quiet for a few years through COVID and what not, and I think it’s back in its rightful place with a sold out stadium. We’re really looking forward to it.”

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