Nathan Cleary’s telling comment as brutal reality for Penrith Panthers laid bare in photo

The powerhouse club are markedly different to when they won their first of three NRL premierships in 2021.

James Fisher-Harris’ decision to leave the Panthers and sign with the Warriors next season means over half of the players who featured in the 2021 grand final triumph for Penrith are now gone or set to go. The Panthers have won three-straight premierships and played in four grand finals in a row since 2020, but their team now looks markedly different from when they won the first of three grand finals straight in 2021.

Of the 17 who lined up in the 2021 decider (a 14-12 win over the Rabbitohs), only seven remain. Api Koroisau, Stephen Crichton, Matt Burton, Spencer Leniu, Viliame Kikau, Tyrone May, Paul Momoroski and Kurt Capewell have all departed, while Fisher-Harris and Jarome Luai are leaving next year.

It means the only players remaining from that premiership triumph just three seasons ago are Nathan Cleary, Isaah Yeo, Dylan Edwards, Moses Leota, Brian To’o, Liam Martin and Scott Sorensen. Fans have been left fuming over the situation, but the unfortunate truth for the Panthers is it’s all part and parcel of success due to the salary cap.

Every player who has left the club has garnered pay rises from other clubs that the Panthers simply haven’t been able to match. Luai, Koroisau, Crichton, Burton and Capewell all became Origin players during their time at the Panthers, meaning their asking price went even higher.

And Fisher-Harris, Kikau and Leniu have all represented their respective countries. As Nathan Cleary said in January after Luai signed with the Wests Tigers: “It’s sad. It’s also a business.

“It’s a fair squad we’ve lost over the years now. I’ve played the longest with ‘Romy’, we’re in the halves together, so that makes it tougher. The more players leave, the more you become accustomed to it happening.”

$900,000 silver lining as Panthers lose James Fisher-Harris

The Panthers have always managed to overcome the loss of high-profile players in their three-year premiership streak. But Fisher-Harris’ departure has led to many speculating we’ve seen the end of an era of Penrith dominance.

“It’s massive given he’s played his entire career in Penrith,” Cameron Smith told SEN Radio. “It’s no secret that he’s been a huge part of their three-peat, there’s no secret about that. He’s just come off a season where he won the Golden Boot and he’s been voted (Dally M) Prop of the Year in (2020 and 2021).

“I think it goes without saying that he’s regarded by a lot of people in rugby league circles as the best propr in the game currently, this is massive, massive news. We always talk about how big the pool of young players coming through at Penrith but jeez it’s hard to replace someone like James Fisher-Harris, it’s just incredible, massive signing for the Warriors though.”

One positive of Fisher-Harris being released with two years remaining on his contract (roughly $900,000) is it frees up some salary cap space that the Panthers desperately need. It means Ivan Cleary’s side are set to become a surprise player in the NRL’s transfer market, and might be able to up their offer to winger Sunia Turuva amid interest from rival teams.

The Panthers will need to replenish their forward stocks, with Tigers prop Stefano Utoikamanu and Titans second-rower David Fifita being touted as potential targets. Fisher-Harris’ exit also allows Penrith to re-sharpen their focus on retaining players already at the club.

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