NRL: Panthers legends lift the lid on epic 2003 premiership bender

Covid-19 will make it difficult but if Penrith wins the grand final and has half as much fun as the 2003 Panthers outfit then Nathan Cleary and Co. are in for a treat.

The men from Sydney’s west are out to break a 17-year premiership drought against Melbourne on Sunday night and if they succeed then the celebrations (socially-distanced, of course) will be worth the wait.

This week, Penrith legends Ryan Girdler and Craig Gower reflected on how they celebrated their 2003 premiership when they beat the Roosters in the decider. Talking to Triple M Sydney’s Moonman in the Morning, Girdler told a wild story about the team trying to get to Penrith Park to present the trophy to fans two days after the grand final.

Full of booze and with a severe lack of sleep, the Panthers allegedly wandered out of a pub several kilometres from the park with no idea how they were going to get to their destination.

Girdler said there were “22 of us walking along the side of the road, a little bit worse for wear” until a school bus approached and stopped just ahead of the pack.

The way the former NSW centre remembers it, the bus driver kicked all the kids off the bus, asked a lady waiting nearby to look after the students and gave the Panthers a lift before turning around and picking the kids back up after he’d done his civic rugby league duty.

Seventeen years on, Girdler may have added some mayonnaise to that story and on Wednesday, champion Penrith halfback Gower spoke to Moonman in the Morning to clear up some of the details.

As Gower put it, the bus escapade was “more of a hijacking” and the players wanted to be taken to another pub, not the park. “I was the one who actually stopped that bus,” he said. “We were partying at the time.”

The former captain explained how his teammates convinced a young journalist to join them for the grand final celebrations so he could write a story. After getting kicked out of a club, Gower said the Panthers filled a taxi full of alcohol and headed to a mate’s place to carry on the party before the bus incident took place.

Instead of being invited on with open arms, Gower said: “I was more saying, ‘You need to take us to the pub, we need to get there’.”

After conflicting versions of the brilliant grand final bender, Aussie comedian Lawrence Mooney tracked down the original source, finding “Bob the Bus Driver” to deliver the facts.

“I proceeded out on my normal run and I thought, ‘Gee, there’s a lot of fellas on the road’ and I thought they might have been partying,” Bob told Triple M on Thursday.

“When I got closer to them I thought, ‘They’re the Panthers’.

“Craig Gower came up to the window and said, ‘You know who we are, don’t you?’

“They all commandeered me and they all got on the bus.”

Fortunately, Bob had been a Panthers supporter since the 1960s and knew he needed to step up. He radioed his bosses, who gave him the all-clear to abandon his usual route and help the bleary-eyed players out.

Bob pinpointed Penrith greats Mark Geyer and Greg Alexander as the “controllers” of the whole operation and suggested Gower was more affected by the festivities than most of the others.

However, Bob denied kicking any kids off the bus to make room for the players.

Only time will tell if this year’s celebrations — should the Panthers beat the Storm — reach the great heights of 2003.

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