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'You grow up not to like each other': Inside the Eels-Panthers rivarly

Reagan Campbell-Gillard admits he initially struggled with the idea of moving from Penrith to Parramatta in 2020.

“It was weird,” Campbell-Gillard said. “It’s a rivalry that has been around for ages and you grow up not to like each other.”

Waqa Blake is another who began his career with the Panthers but will be trying to stop his former team-mates winning back-to-back grand finals by helping the Eels to their first premiership since 1986.

“When I was at Penrith I hated Parramatta, but now I’m on the other side. It’s just something that goes way back,” Blake said.

Pressure, poise and praise: Eels path to glory underway in front of huge turnout

The rivalry goes back more than 50 years to Penrith’s first season in 1967 after beating Wentworthville for the right to enter the premiership alongside Cronulla.

The driving force behind the establishment of the Panthers was Merv Cartwright, the late grandfather of Eels forward Bryce Cartwright, who has been named as 18th man on Sunday night.

“Penrith will always hold a special place in my heart, that is where I have grown up and where all my family is from … but it would be nice to break the drought and bring the trophy back,” Cartwright said after helping Parramatta into their first grand final since 2009.

The Panthers beat the Eels for the first time in 1968 but there has been no bigger Battle of the West clash than Sunday night’s grand final at Accor Stadium, and whichever team wins is likely to have bragging rights for years to come.

“The build up around it is massive,” Campbell-Gillard said. “From Church Street [Parramatta] to the Blue Mountains, the streets are going to be full of Parramatta and Penrith fans.

“It is good for the community, good for western Sydney and good for rugby league to have two local rivals in a grand final.“

Panthers v Eels: Grand Final

Yet the NRL’s first local derby grand final would never have happened if a proposed Parramatta Panthers merger had come to fruition in 1999.

Penrith were the last club to join Super League in 1995, while the Eels were one of the ARL’s flagship teams, and after the game re-united they briefly considered joining forces but the Panthers board voted 5-4 against a merger they believed would be more of a take-over.

Even after all the recent success the Panthers have enjoyed, Parramatta officials claim to have more supporters living in Penrith than the local club and Campbell-Gillard says: “There are actually a lot of Parramatta fans in Penrith”.

Campbell-Gillard, Blake and Cartwright are among 92 players who have played for both clubs, along with the likes of Geoff Gerard, Paul Dunn, David Liddiard, Andrew Leeds, Matt Adamson, Gary Freeman and Frank Pritchard.

Campbell-Gillard is a Rooty Hill Dragons junior, who played the first 114 of his 182 NRL matches for Penrith, while Cartwright began playing at a young age for St Marys and debuted for the Panthers in 2014 before joining the Eels last year after a stint with the Titans.

“Ever since the first day I came here I have believed Parra have the best fans,” Cartwright said. “They always have something nice to say to you and they wear their colours with pride.”

An all-time Battle of the West

After reluctantly making the move to Parramatta, Campbell-Gillard hasn’t looked back and the prop is on the cusp of earning World Cup selection for the Kangaroos.

Despite attracting interest from rival clubs, the 29-year-old said he never considered leaving and is set to play out his career with the Eels after extending his contract until the end of the 2025 season.

“I was never going anywhere else,” he said. “Parramatta gave me a lifeline and helped me out so I wanted to return the favour and stay with the club. It was the best decision for myself and the club.

“They signed me, so they helped out, and the only way to pay your dues is to return the favour and I think I have been doing that for the last three years.

“I love the playing group, I love the community and I love what Brad [Arthur] gets out of me. He is a great coach, a great mate and it is a club I want to be at for a long time.”

Acknowledgement of Country

Parramatta Eels respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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