Penrith: Gower, Waterhouse, Puletua and Swain help Panthers win 2003 NRL Premiership

Sam Harris

The last time Penrith Panthers claimed the Premiership was all the way back in 2003 under coach John Lang but many fans and pundits believe the current side can emulate their counterparts from 17 years ago. 

A record of nine successive wins was broken by the 2020 outfit last weekend when they thrashed Cronulla Sharks and they look set to equal their predecessors by winning the Minor Premiership as they are three points ahead of Melbourne with just five matches remaining. 

We have decided to look back at that historic achievement, and the careers of their grand final team…

1 Rhys Wesser

Full-back Wesser had begun his career at the Panthers in 1998 and the previous season scored a club-record 19 tries including three hat-tricks. 

In 2003 he was even better, crossing 25 times, an Australian rugby league record for the most tries by a full-back in a season.

The following year he made his Queensland debut in State of Origin and remained at Penrith until 2008, scoring a record 113 tries for the club before moving to Souths until being forced to retire through injury in 2011.

2 Luke Lewis

Known for his versatility, Lewis played as a centre, lock, second-row, five-eighth and half-back as well as wing during his career. 

After his debut in 2001, his breakthrough campaign at the Panthers was in the following year where he scored 18 tries despite the club finishing 12th.

During the premiership winning season, Lewis crossed 18 times and his form was rewarded with a State of Origin debut for New South Wales. 

Upon leaving Penrith in 2012, Lewis had played 201 matches and scored 89 tries in a six-year stint with Cronulla added another 33 tries in 116 appearances and won the Clive Churchill Medal as the Sharks claimed their first premiership in 2016.

3 Ryan Girdler 

Playing the majority of his career at Penrith, Girdler holds the record for the most points (1,572) in the club’s history due to his goal-kicking prowess and scoring 101 tries in 204 matches.

A consistent performer in his 11 years at the club, the centre scored four tries and had a 65% kicking record in the 2003 season. 

In an impressive career which saw him play for the Illawarra Steelers prior to Penrith, he also represented Australia on 14 occasions as New South Wales 10 times. 

Since 2018, he has been a co-host on successful radio show Triple M.

4 Paul Whatuira

Only at the Panthers between 2002-04, the centre played for five other sides in his 11-year career including a stint in the Super League with Huddersfield in 2006. 

During the 2003 season, Whatuira appeared in all 26 games scoring 10 tries as he built up a strong centre partnership with Girdler. 

His premiership ring was stolen from his home in 2005 but was recovered two years later by which time he had gained another winners’ ring with Wests Tigers win the same year. 

He retired at just 29 after playing just one game in 2011 for Parramatta and his post-playing career has seen him set up his own company Positive Energy which helps NRL players adapt after finishing their career.  

5 Luke Rooney

Rooney played his entire rugby league career at the Panthers from 2001 to 2008, playing 140 matches as a winger, scoring two tries in the 2003 Grand Final. 

That campaign was the most prolific in his career as he crossed 17 times with the following campaign the only other time he reached double figures. 

He also gained representative honours for New South Wales and Australia in 2004 and 2005 before his eventual move to rugby union. 

A six-year stay in the 15-man code saw him play for Super Rugby side Melbourne Rebels but the majority of his time was at French Top 14 outfit Toulon where he made 30 appearances in two spells. 

6 Preston Campbell

After spells early in his career with Gold Coast Chargers and Cronulla Sharks (who whom he won the 2001 Dally M Player of the Year), Campbell joined Penrith in 2003. 

In his more familiar role at half-back/five-eighth, he played every minute during the season of the successful premiership triumph, kicking two goals in the final. 

Just shy of a century of games for the club, the diminutive playmaker had scored 43 tries and kicked 220 goals upon leaving in 2006. 

His final club was Gold Coast Titans where he claimed their player of the year in 2008, a year in which he also received the Ken Stephen Medal for his work with Indigenous communities, before his retirement in 2011. 

7 Craig Gower

The mercurial half-back started his career at the Panthers, making his debut in 1996, scoring 55 tries in 238 games before he departed in 2007. 

Despite playing the majority of his career in the halves, Gower often deputised at hooker and in 2000 won Dally M Hooker of the Year. 

Upon leaving Penrith he switched codes with a move to French Top 14 side Bayonne where he also represented the Italian national team, due to his Italian grandfather. 

In 2012, he moved abroad again to play for Super League side London Broncos before finishing his career at the Newcastle Knights the following year due to injury. 

8 Joel Clinton

Also starting his career at Penrith, Clinton made his debut in 2002 and made 26 appearances in 2003 (his most in a single season) as they claimed the title. 

The robust prop was fearless and led the pack by example but did not receive many representative honours with three appearances for City New South Wales and a solitary cap for Australia in 2004 in an ANZAC Test against New Zealand. 

A one-year spell at Brisbane Broncos followed in 2008 before an opportunity arose in the Super League with Hull Kingston Rovers where he played for two seasons.

9 Luke Priddis

Priddis joined the Panthers in 2002 having already played for Canberra and Brisbane, winning the 2000 Premiership with the latter. 

As with his previous Grand Final victory, he played as hooker in the showpiece and deservedly won the Clive Churchill Medal as he scored one try and set up two others for Luke Rooney making him the first hooker to have won the award. 

The classy schemer also grabbed a four-pointer in the 2004 World Club Challenge against Bradford Bulls and ended with 162 Panthers appearances with 34 tries. 

For the final season of his career in 2009 he was reunited with Broncos coach Wayne Bennett at St George Illawarra where he played his 300th NRL match but did not play in the 2010 Grand Final, missing out on winning three finals with three different clubs.

10 Martin Lang

Lang actually played most of his career for Cronulla and played in the losing grand final of 1998, where he made more than 100 appearances from 1996 to 2001, during which time he made his State of Origin bow for Queensland. 

The son of former Australian international and coach John Lang, Martin played under his father for his entire career, moving to Penrith in 2002. 

During his two years with the Panthers the prop played 67 matches including 18 in the title-winning campaign.

The hard-hitting forward suffered repeatedly from concussions throughout his career including in the 2003 Grand Final but stayed on as protocols were not as stringent as they are today, and he retired a year later.

11 Joe Galuvao

Best known as a second-row forward Galuvao played at prop, centre and full-back in a nomadic career also spent at Auckland Warriors, South Sydney, Parramatta and Manly. 

After a stop-start to his career, with just 27 games in three years, his first season as a Panther came in 2002 but his breakthrough came in the Premiership campaign as he appeared 25 times, scoring eight tries. 

He left for South Sydney in 2006, having made 78 appearances scoring 15 tries in arguably career-best form but moved to the Eels after a disappointing couple of years.

Having been told to retire while at Souths, Galuavo continued to play until his eventual retirement in 2013, winning a second Premiership in 2011 with the Sea Eagles.

12 Tony Puletua

Originally starting out as a centre in his early years, Puletua was converted into a rampaging forward by Penrith coach Royce Simmons which proved to be an inspired decision. 

Forming a strong partnership with Joe Galuvao, the New Zealand native played 25 matches in 2003 scoring four tries and his spell at the Panthers was successful as he made 211 appearances from 1997 to 2008.

The Western Sydney outfit proved to be his only NRL side as he went on to play for Super League sides St Helens, with whom he lost two grand finals, and Salford Red Devils. 

A loan spell at Hull Kingston Rovers was his last campaign in the game as he retired at the end of 2015 by which time he was playing internationally for Samoa having switched from New Zealand in 2007.

13 Scott Sattler

Sattler is known for his stint at the Panthers between 1999 and 2003 and in particular one tackle in the 2003 Grand Final. 

The lock chased down Roosters winger Todd Byrne, tackling him into touch to prevent a certain try with the scores level midway through the second half. 

Before joining Penrith, he had experienced his first full first-grade season at Gold Coast Chargers, having had brief spells at Gold Coast Seagulls, Eastern Suburbs and South Queensland Crushers. 

In 2003 at 32-years-old, he became the second oldest player after Arthur Beetson to be selected for the Queensland State of Origin team before he retired the following year after a spell at Wests Tigers. 


14 Ben Ross

The prop made his name at Penrith making 56 appearances between 2003 and 2005 after a short stint with his first club St George Illawarra. 

He played 18 matches becoming a useful option off the bench for coach John Lang and his form in the historic season and the following campaign earned him a call up to the Queensland State of Origin side where he played six times. 

After his release from the club due to salary-cap concerns, Ross moved to Cronulla where he played until a neck injury in 2009 forced him to spend two years out of the game. 

Upon his return he joined the Rabbitohs before finishing his career with the Sharks, retiring in 2013.

15 Trent Waterhouse

In a career spent at one club apiece in Australia and England, Waterhouse was a well-respected forward who made 187 appearances for the Panthers in nine years from 2002. 

Making all but five of his appearances in the 2003 season as an interchange, he was one of the super-subs used by John Lang. 

In 2009, he set an unwanted record by becoming the first player in nine years and the first ever Blues player to be sent off in a State of Origin match and the year also saw him earn the last of 12 Australia caps. 

For the 2012 season, the Paddington native moved to Warrington Wolves in Super League where he scored a try in that year’s Challenge Cup final victory over Leeds Rhinos in a late career highlight before finishing his career in 2014.

16 Shane Rodney

Tamworth-born Rodney played mainly as a second-row or lock and began his career at Penrith, where he made 79 appearances from 2002, sporadically sharing goal-kicking duties.  

The premiership-winning campaign saw him make his single most appearances in a campaign with 23 as he became an important player from the bench. 

During his time at the Panthers, he spent two years out injured, undergoing ankle, spine and two shoulder reconstructions, returning in 2008.

The following year he began his three seasons at Manly before seeing out his career in England with London Broncos, where he was reunited with Panthers captain Craig Gower, retiring in 2015.   

17 Luke Swain

Swain was another strong running interchange forward who joined Penrith for their title-winning campaign and remained for a further three seasons, playing 78 times. 

He made 23 appearances as the Panthers claimed the title, and featured off the bench in their loss to Bradford Bulls in the 2004 World Club Challenge. 

Leaving in 2006 for the Gold Coast Titans. Swain was there just a year before ending his professional career at Super League side Salford in 2010. 

At just 28-years-old, he moved into the semi-professional ranks with French side AS Carcassonne and is currently manager of Sydney Shield team St Mary’s.

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