Penrith Panthers ‘bubble boys’ delighted to be pulled into grand final

They’re the Penrith bubble boys, the men who spent three months in Queensland last year but didn’t have the reward of playing on the big day of the final.

Mitch Kenny, Izack Tago, Charlie Staines and Jaeman Salmon are all playing for their first premierships on Sunday after watching last year and only charging onto the pitch full-time.

“All year, it’s been a huge motivation for me,” Salmon told AAP.

“It was great when the boys won. But when we won, I couldn’t help but think it would be even better if I actually played.

“So a year later, for me to actually play in the grand final is a very special feeling.”

Salmon will come off the bench in Sunday’s grand final against Parramatta, with the four bubble boys being the only players in the Penrith squad yet to play in a decider.

For three months last year he stayed in a hotel on the Sunshine Coast, playing just one game in that entire period as the reserve rank was also waived.

Meanwhile, Tago has only played three, making his debut but otherwise attending opposite sessions for the Panthers every week.

“It was crazy,” said the rookie center.

“All the boys were pretty close up there. It was cool like that. It was like a win for us when they won the grand final.

“(That experience) will definitely help. It’s hard to explain because I know I haven’t played, but I still feel familiar with a grand final.”

Senior Penrith players are also well aware of the bubble boy influence.

It was part of the reason they were determined to start the big final week by watching the NSW Cup side claim their title on Sunday.

Now the likes of Tago will have 22 tickets reserved for family members to watch him in the NRL decider, while Staines will have the whole town of Forbes behind him.

Kenny, meanwhile, was seen as the leader of the pack, having first arrived at the clubs as a groundskeeper in 2019 and staying there after securing a training and trial contract.

That’s why he was named club captain when the players rested from the final.

He’s also likely to play the bubble boys’ most crucial role, knocking the sting out of the game starting at the hooker before Api Koroisau arrives.

“His attitude and character were what they were,” said Bubble Penrith strength and conditioning coach Hayden Knowles.

“Everyone loved his leadership from day one. Even now he goes out and does whatever is hard. He’s super fit, reliable and such a team player.

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