Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League: Panthers after Southern Men

The Panthers hope to uncover the region's "untapped talent"  and become the club of choice for aspiring NRL hopefuls. Photo / Getty Images
The Panthers hope to uncover the region's "untapped talent" and become the club of choice for aspiring NRL hopefuls. Photo / Getty Images

The Chocolate Soldiers are coming to Christchurch - and they hope the South Island can provide them with NRL recruits in the years ahead.

Penrith have signed a deal to stage up to four matches in the Garden City during the next four years but their plans go well beyond the 80 minutes on the field.

The Panthers hope to uncover the region's "untapped talent" and become the club of choice for aspiring NRL hopefuls.

"In time, I'd like to see our club as a source of inspiration for young footballers growing up in the Canterbury region," said Penrith general manager Phil Gould. "I'd like to think there is no end date on this relationship."

Canterbury has a proud league history, producing plenty of Kiwis in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as one of New Zealand's most successful coaches in Frank Endacott.

League in the region has since regressed - the end of the national provincial competition in the early 1990s is seen as a turning point - but quality players are still being produced. Lewis Brown learnt the game in Christchurch, as did Matt McIIwrick, Kodi and Jayden Nikorima and former Kiwis Setaimata Sa and Matt Duffie.

Other NRL clubs have taken matches to the Garden City - the Tigers staged three in the 2000s and the Roosters played the Warriors there in 2010 before a crowd of more than 20,000 but those visits were not intended as part of a long-term legacy.

That's where Penrith's plans are different. They have promised to commit resources to grassroots development and want to raise the NRL's profile in the South Island.

"We intend to over-deliver on the promises we've made," said Gould. "There will be elite pathways - it's a strong area. There will be opportunities for a development pathway. Whatever we are doing in our own area, we want to duplicate into other regions."

Penrith, who will open a A$23 million ($25 million) academy in March in Western Sydney, have always been a great producer of junior talent and are looking to spread their influence.

"Everybody knows about all of the great rugby talent that comes out of the South Island and Canterbury in particular," said former Canterbury representative and current Canterbury Rugby League board member Justin Wallace. "Penrith see it as an untapped nursery ... which has got to be good for league in the area."

Four great Canterbury Kiwis

• Mel Cooke: Played 22 tests during 1959-64 and was named in New Zealand's Team of the 20th Century. Often compared with Australian legend and contemporary Johnny Raper.

• Quentin Pongia: Played 35 tests and was skipper of the unbeaten 1998 Kiwis side in Great Britain. Also part of Canberra's 1994 premiership-winning team and later lifted the Challenge Cup with Wigan.

• Mark Broadhurst: One of the hardest men to play the game, Broadhurst played 17 tests and also turned out for Manly, Illawarra and Hull Kingston Rovers.

• Brent Todd: Durable prop who made a record four grand final appearances for the Raiders, winning two (1989 and 1990), as well as playing 28 test matches.

- Herald on Sunday

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