Ask your average Panthers fan who they think of as the most “local” player in their stable, the most committed to Penrith as a community, and nine times out of ten they’ll come back at you with the same answer: Josh Mansour. While some teams are defined by their captains and some are defined by their star power, the Panthers tend to be defined by their up-and-comers, future playmakers who are getting their first taste of rep footy in one of the best incubation pods in the game. It’s no coincidence that James Segeyaro comes a close second to Mansour in popularity, nor that Mansour himself has one of the biggest social media fanbases in the game, since Penrith have the kind of storied history that makes supporters especially receptive to young guns who pledge their allegiance to the black and teal as emphatically as Mansour.
In part, that’s due to Penrith’s position within the wider NRL. Situated at the foot of the mountains – and no player looks as much like a mountain man as Mansour when his beard is out of control – the Panthers are nominally grouped with the Western Sydney teams – Eels, Dogs, Tigers – but really feel more like a rural outfit, or at least an exurban outfit, as distinct from Sydney as the Raiders, but not quite far enough for the fortress mentality that defines Raiders footy at its best either. At an oblique angle to the suburban spirit of so much Sydney Rugby League, the Panthers are a bit of a nation unto themselves, which perhaps explains why they’ve got one of the most communal, family-friendly fanbases in the competition, and place such an emphasis upon footy-as-family in their press releases and media presence.
And if the Panthers are a family, Mansour is their favourite son. First and foremost, that’s because he’s arguably the winger with the most potential in the game at the moment. Whereas some wing pairs tend to unofficially divvy up the burden of defence and offence, Mansour at his best is brilliant at both – a lightning-bolt battering-ram who can effortlessly rack up the metres with astonishing speed and offload in even the the tightest and most tortuous crushes, but can also spin his way out of one-on-one tackles that would put a stranglehold on nearly any other player. At his best, he’s got the same kind of magical dexterity you could glimpse in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s early days as winger with the Chooks.
With Mansour on the field, then, it’s almost as if Penrith have three wingers, giving the team an incredibly expansive presence that almost makes it feel as if Mansour could single-handedly fulfil Ivan Cleary’s mission of turning them around from their sorry state in the late 00s. While the Raiders may have a fortress mentality, the Panthers have more of a frontier mentality, and watching Mansour fill out the frontier of the team has been one of the best spectacles in Panthers footy over the last couple of years, earning him a spot in the Kangaroos, as well as turning him into one of the next major contenders for Origin. As a Blues fan, I’m pretty excited about the prospect of Mansour on the New South Wales wing, not only because Will Hopoate and Daniel Tupou haven’t quite delivered as promised, but also because it feels as if the Blues need some kind of decisive answer to what promises to be a bit of a Maroons wing dynasty in the form of Darius Boyd and Will Chambers. Of course, there’s more to a team than a champion flier, but at this point every little decision is important if the Blues are to regain their pride.
At the same time, Mansour could have probably stepped into to assist New South Wales a couple of years ago had he not been frustratingly held back from achieving his potential by a series of mishaps and injuries, culminating with a brutal knee buckle against the Titans in April this year. Since he’s pretty much played the game of two wingers, that’s been a considerable blow to the Panthers, and a disappointing turnout for a player good enough to get Rookie of the Year in 2012, as well as Player’s Player for all three of his first appearances on the first-grade field. To his credit, Mansour has been a great sport about it all, taking it on the chin with the same calm intelligence that makes him such a dynamo on the wing, where his decisions count as much as his drive. You have to feel for him though – for such a promising player, it must be hard to have to postpone your future several years in a row, especially in a game like Rugby League where you’re working within a pretty tight framework career-wise anyway. In another profession, two years is a tiny fraction of your working life, but in Rugby League it can be as much as twenty percent, and Mansour must be feeling the pressure to get back out there and achieve his potential more urgently than ever before.
Still, Mansour’s trials and tribulations have just seemed to make him more inextricable from Penrith, and endear him more to the Panthers community in the process. In part, that comes down to his good sportsmanship and his dedication to the club – he’s nearly always smiling, upbeat and optimistic on the field – which was evident even in his hesitation about whether to sign with the Raiders towards the end of last year. One of the most impressive moments in his career has been the way Mansour handled this decision, speaking about his effort to weigh the pros and cons – and his agony about the prospect of leaving Penrith – with a transparency that won him a whole new wave of support, a swathe of social media adulation and veritable fanfare when he next appeared at Penrith Stadium. It was the kind of gesture that made it clear that Mansour would always be a Penrith boy, even if his career necessitated moving elsewhere.
At the same time, there’s something to be said for the way a player comes just that little bit closer to the fans when he’s benched or injured for as long as Mansour. Seeing him on the sidelines, week after week, was like witnessing a different – but equal – resilience to his fortitude on the field, the fortitude of a player forced to watch his team play round after round of footy without being able to step in and take part. It’s only a couple of metres from the sidelines to the wing, and at times it must have been pretty hard for Mansour to stay seated over the last couple of seasons, especially since the Panthers were so clearly suffering in his absence. Giving your all when your team is losing is hard enough, but giving your all off the field is even harder, at least when you’re capable of the plosive footy displayed by Mansour in the few long stretches he’s had to really refine it.
At the end of the day, though, I think that there’s another, more fundamental reason why Mansour’s setbacks have endeared him to the Penrith community, as well as the NRL community at large. Ever since their powerhouse performance in 2010, the Panthers have seemed to be right on the verge of breaking out and discovering a new kind of potential, only to encounter some setback that collapses it all back into disappointment. In his temporarily thwarted genius, Mansour is that Penrith conundrum, which also means, of course, that he has what it takes to usher the Panthers into a new era. Add to that the fact that he’s a Roos and Blues powerhouse on the rise, and you have a player well worth watching over the next couple of years, as well as one of the most impressive young guns in the game.