How Penrith’s winning machine remade Jack Cogger

Australia World

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Panthers five-eighth Jack Cogger takes his football seriously. Damn seriously, in fact.

If you’re going to make it at Penrith that’s the only way to survive and that’s precisely how Cogger is fixing to stay as he continues to cover for injured Panthers star Jarome Luai throughout the club’s finals campaign.

Luai’s return date from a shoulder problem remains uncertain, so as the club chases its third-straight premiership, Cogger is the man who must fill the breach.

The 26-year-old has done well on spot duty, spelling either Luai or Nathan Cleary when the duo have been absent due to injury or representative commitments, but things are about to get knocked up a notch.

Cogger will make his finals debut on Saturday afternoon when the Panthers host the Warriors and, even if he’s just another part in the league’s greatest winning machine, that machine only works if all the parts fit together.

“They’re big occasions, but there’s a process to how the game goes and that shouldn’t change too much to how the rest of the year went,” Cogger said.

“Stakes rise and you don’t get second chances. That’s the difference. But in terms of preparing, it’s like any other game.

“I’m not regimented in my routine. I just do all the things that make me ready for a game. I know how I like to feel and there’s a few things I know that work for me and I lean on those things during the whole week.

“I know what works for me and my life revolves around being ready to play football on the weekend.

“That’s one thing I noticed from the first few weeks here. That’s not abnormal here.

“Football and winning and being a part of a good system, it really matters to everyone at this club.”

It’s easy to look at Penrith’s galaxy of stars and finely honed style of play and think Cogger’s job of facilitating the bigger names around him is easy, but if it was that easy then everybody would be doing it. 

With eight try assists in 10 matches this season, Cogger has been far more than just another guy for the Panthers. And while his role changes slightly depending on which half he’s filling in for, his plan to play to his own strengths doesn’t change. 

“Romey’s very energetic. He runs the ball with great footwork and I can’t try and be like that. He’s unique,” Cogger said. 

“I have to bring my skill set to the team in a way that benefits all of us.”

Even though his arrival at the Panthers was low key, it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise to see Cogger here.

These circumstances are precisely why he was signed and, given his ability, Cogger was always supposed to be playing in games like this. It’s just taken him a little while longer than anyone thought.

A man passes the ball during an NRL match

Cogger was thrown into first grade at just 19 for a Knights team who finished with the wooden spoon. (Getty Images: Jason McCawley )

A highly decorated junior footballer who represented New South Wales at underage level and captained the Australian Schoolboys, talent was never a problem for Cogger.

But any young half would do well to survive the circumstances of his early days in the NRL. Cogger was thrown into the big time in 2016 at age 19 as part of an ailing Knights squad that won just a single match in a wretched, deplorable season.

“It wasn’t great. I came in probably a bit before my time and it all happened so quickly,” he said.

“Looking back, you can say there was pressure, but at the time it was what it was.

“You put your hand up and if you’re required you do the best you can.

“At the time, I probably wasn’t ready, but those low points helped me get to where I am today.”

Things didn’t get much easier for Cogger in the years to come. He didn’t win a match in first grade until his third season in the NRL, and when he left Newcastle for Canterbury in search of a permanent first-grade spot and greener pastures, he didn’t get much of either.

A man stares at the camera after his rugby league team conceded a try

Cogger has endured a torrid path to his first finals match. (Getty Images: Mark Kolbe )

By the time he left for English club Huddersfield at the end of 2020, Cogger had played in 42 NRL games and won just 10. Even the best players need some fortunate circumstances to get their careers started and Cogger kept rolling snake eyes.

His time at the Giants served as a career reset, enough so that the Panthers reached out. And now, after proving he can last in the fiery crucible Penrith used to forge their dynasty, he’s making up for lost time and edging closer towards becoming the player he was always supposed to be.

What happens next remains to be seen. Luai might return or he might not, Cogger might stay in the match day 17 as cover or he might not, Penrith might win their third-straight premiership or they might not.

Only two things in Cogger’s future are certain. He’s definitely coming to the end of his time with Penrith, having parlayed his good form this year into a deal that will have him return to Newcastle, and he’s going to be a different player forever due to what he’s seen, learned and done in Sydney’s west.

“The intensity they train at and the depth across the squad stands out,” Cogger said. 

“The juniors who come up from SG Ball or Jersey Flegg into full-time training, they know what’s expected and they rise to that level.

“The overall quality and depth of the club is what makes the training so intense and it makes everyone better because iron sharpens iron.”

“Being a part of a system, in defence and attack, where you know your role and everyone around you knowing their role, that’s the most important thing. And understanding how to become a better player, not just in the system but overall, that’s what the Panthers do to you.

“Your overall skills and knowledge will always be better for being at this club.”