The Fish that broke the Panthers’ back: Dynasty in danger with JFH the biggest blow in long list of star departures


This one will hurt. James Fisher-Harris’ unexpected exit from Penrith to the Warriors at season’s end not only has ramifications for those two clubs but every other team nearing title contention. 

The Panthers have endured a long list of star departures since they made the first of their four straight grand finals in 2020, culminating in three premierships on the trot. 

You could make quite a team out of the ex-Panthers running around in the NRL since their golden run kicked off four years ago.

Throw in Fisher-Harris and Tigers-bound five-eighth Jarome Luai and that team would be a top-four contender.

1 Stephen Crichton
2 Charlie Staines
3 Brent Naden
4 Matt Burton
5 Thomas Jenkins
6 Jarome Luai
7 Isaiya Katoa
8 Spencer Leniu
9 Api Koroisau
10 James Fisher-Harris
11 Viliame Kikau
12 Kurt Capewell
13 J’maine Hopgood
14 Jack Cogger
15 Jack Hetherington
16 Zac Hosking
17 Jaeman Salmon

And that’s not including the likes of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Wayde Egan and Reagan Campbell-Gillard who were jettisoned the previous year.

But out of all those players who have been forced out due to the Panthers’ salary cap constraints and rival clubs luring their surplus talent away with lucrative deals, JFH’s switch to the Warriors will have the heaviest impact. 

If he is not the best prop in the NRL, he’s second only to Payne Haas and that’s debatable. 

He’s still only 28 despite being in the early stages of his ninth season of first grade with 184 games under his belt. 

Apart from the almost unthinkable prospect of Nathan Cleary leaving Ivan in the lurch, there is arguably no more important player at Penrith than Fisher-Harris. 

(Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Dylan Edwards and Isaah Yeo are the only other players in the conversation. 

Fisher-Harris has a presence that intimidates opponents – the combination of a steely resolve, a tireless work ethic, immense power and an economy of words that is much more imposing than someone who shoots their mouth off.

You never have to worry too much about the loudmouth at the pub brawl, it’s always the strong, silent type in the corner who assesses the situation, doesn’t rush into anything but finishes any arguments with no ambiguity. 

Without their main man in the middle, Penrith will be far from pushovers but their pack will lose its aura in 2025 and that’s great news for Brisbane, Melbourne and any other team that thinks they are heading towards a title.

The rugby league gods have repaid the Warriors with a healthy dose of good karma after the club begrudgingly allowed Reece Walsh, Matt Lodge, Euan Aitken and, most recently, Addin Fonua-Blake early releases on compassionate grounds. 

It’s always a catch-22 for the Warriors – if they sign an Australian player before they hit their peak or rejuvenate their career, they suddenly get homesickness when a club this side of the Tasman flashes the dollar signs. 

With Fonua-Blake, also 28, joining the Sharks next season, the Warriors are not only getting a like for like replacement but one of the few players in the NRL who play the same position and can be considered an upgrade.

Fisher-Harris’ arrival should be enough to convince Shaun Johnson to stick around for another season. 

The 2002 and 2011 Warriors outfits that made the Grand Final were remarkable in their own ways but the way the club is shaping up now gives them easily their best chance to win their first title since entering the big league a tick under three decades ago.

And there’s no shortage of big-match experience if Johnson combines with Fisher-Harris, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Tohu Harris, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Kurt Capewell, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Marata Niukore. 

For the Panthers, they have an enviable production line of talent but Fisher-Harris is all but irreplaceable. 

Moses Leota has been an under-rated part of their premiership hat-trick but after farewelling Spencer Leniu last off-season and Fisher-Harris in the upcoming summer, Penrith won’t pack the same punch in their forwards.

Lindsay Smith, Liam Henry and Mavrik Geyer have the size and the potential to develop into top-class forwards but all three are a year or two away from having anywhere near the impact that Fisher-Harris delivers on a weekly basis. 

James Fisher-Harris. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

It is no surprise that Wests Tigers front-rower Stefano Utoikamanu would sit atop Penrith’s wish list now that they are suddenly in the rare position of having plenty of salary cap room. 

The hulking 23-year-old, who made his Origin debut last year, has a clause in his contract that allows him to veto the final season of his deal if he doesn’t play two more matches for NSW or if the the Tigers miss out on the finals yet again.

Utoikamanu was not included in the Blues’ pre-season squad of 36 by Michael Maguire, who was his coach at club level this time last year. 

And the Tigers have the longest playoff drought in the NRL stretching back to 2011 and despite a couple of upset wins early in the season, they currently have the 13th-best record in the competition heading into Saturday’s clash with none other than the premiers at Bathurst.

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Just when Tigers fans thought they had been freed from the previous front office’s reign of error, their claws/clauses are still dragging them down.

There is little to no chance of Fisher-Harris’ impending departure having an impact on Penrith’s prospects this season as they look to become the first team since St George’s 11-year reign ended in 1966 to lift the trophy four times on the trot. 

But it gives rival teams hope that the dynasty which looked rock solid for potentially another year or two or more could finally start to crumble.

The salary cap has caused a succession of body blows to the Panthers but they have remained the champions. 

This latest knock has the potential to finally send them tumbling to the canvas.

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