Warriors signing of Panther James Fisher-Harris could be end of NRL era like Ray Price retirement was for Eels

Matt Jones
The Nightly
4 Min Read
James Fisher-Harris' exit could be the beginning of the end for Penrith as Ray Price's retirement was for Parramatta in the 1980s.
James Fisher-Harris' exit could be the beginning of the end for Penrith as Ray Price's retirement was for Parramatta in the 1980s. Credit: Getty Images

Is Penrith about to have its Ray Price moment?

The news during the week that star prop James Fisher-Harris would be leaving the club for the Warriors at the end of the season shocked everyone.

Could it be the loss that ends Penrith’s dynasty?

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The Panthers were able to make it three-straight premierships last season despite having lost State of Origin stars Matt Burton, Kurt Capewell, Api Koroisau and the Origin-standard Fijian Viliame Kikau.

This season they’re trying to win four in-a-row without NSW centre Stephen Crichton and Spencer Leniu who was in the Blues Origin squad last year and came close to debuting.

Despite all the player losses the Panthers are still $3.25 favourites to win the premiership in 2024.

But will Fisher-Harris’ departure at the end of this season prove to be the loss they can’t replace?

It’s happened before.

The retirement of just one forward ended Parramatta’s dynasty of the 1980s.

Inspirational leader Ray Price retired after Parramatta’s 1986 grand final win and the club never recovered.

Ex-international Eels forward Peter Wynn was there to see it firsthand.

“We had Ray Price from 1976 through to 1986 and during that time we only missed the semi finals once, in 1980,” Wynn said.

“In every battle we had, Pricey was there and he was the most resilient player. When he retired we missed the finals in 1987.”

Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke (L) congratulates Michael Cronin (R) and Ray Price (C) of the Eels after winning the 1986 NSWRL Grand Final between the Parramatta Eels and the Canterbury Bulldogs held at the SCG. Parramatta won 4-2.
Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke (L) congratulates Michael Cronin (R) and Ray Price (C) of the Eels after winning the 1986 NSWRL Grand Final between the Parramatta Eels and the Canterbury Bulldogs held at the SCG. Parramatta won 4-2. Credit: Patrick Riviere/Getty Images

In fact, Parramatta didn’t play finals football again until 1997 when the competition was chopped in half due to Super League.

“If Pricey was playing I think we would’ve made the semi finals (in 1987) for sure so he was certainly missed,” Wynn said.

“In 1980 we were leading the comp with a few rounds to go and Wests beat us as did Canterbury and St George and we missed the semis by a point and Pricey didn’t play in those three losses.”

When Price, along with Mick Cronin, retired after 1986 Parramatta’s star backs including Peter Sterling (26), Brett Kenny (25), Steve Ella (26) and Eric Grothe (26) were all still relatively young.

But they couldn’t win premierships without their forward inspiration.

“It was 100 per cent (not the same). Pricey was inspirational on the field and on the training paddock and his voice was missed,” Wynn said.

“He was the missing link for us to keep our dynasty going.”

Could the loss of Fisher-Harris next season finally bring down Penrith’s great dynasty?

“I’m only an outsider looking in, but this is my look on it,” Wynn said.

“Penrith made the last four grand finals and Fisher-Harris has played in all those grand finals.

“To play in four-straight grand finals is quite remarkable in the front row position. At Parramatta we won four grand finals and we had one front rower play in more than one winning grand final and that was Geoff Bugden.

“Front rowers are so important to a rugby league team. I know what Fisher-Harris has done and he may well be (the Ray Price moment).”

James Fisher-Harris after the 2023 grand final.
James Fisher-Harris after the 2023 grand final. Credit: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

Since making his NRL debut in 2016, the Kiwi Test skipper has played 183 NRL games for the Panthers, four matches for the Maori All Stars and 15 Test matches for New Zealand.

Penrith coach Ivan Cleary paid tribute to the role Fisher-Harris has played on and off the field since he arrived at the club.

“The leadership and cultural impact he has displayed since coming into first grade has been outstanding,” Cleary said.

“He’s evolved into one of the game’s elite players and coaching him has been a pleasure.

“While we would have loved him to stay at the Panthers, we wish him, his partner Natalie, and children Tahira and Deon all the best for their next chapter.”

Statistically, Fisher-Harris isn’t a complete standout in the NRL.

Among the props in 2023 he was 12th in run metres, 22nd in post contact metres, 20th in offloads, 15th in tackle breaks and 18th in tackles made.

But Penrith always looks safer when Fisher-Harris is on the field and impact and influence in the NRL is about more than stats.

“That Fisher-Harris is a tough player and a leader who is loved by his teammates and fans and is respected by the opposition,” Wynn said.

“He leads their pack with his aggression.

“I remember the time I first played first grade for the Eels at Cumberland Oval and I got there early and the reserve grade side was in the dressing sheds waiting to go out after halftime.

“What caught me was everyone from the southern end was cheering and clapping and I couldn’t work it out because there was no-one on the field.

“The reason they were cheering was because Ray Price had just walked into Cumberland Oval.

“That’s how much respect he had.”

The Eels haven’t tasted grand final success since Price held aloft the Windfield Cup in 1986.

Time will tell if Fisher-Harris is Penrith’s Ray Price.

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