Bryce Cartwright’s decision to take personal leave mid-season to deal with a range of mental and physical issues has been described as the catalyst for his resurgence in the opening week of the finals.
The Panthers believe they have rediscovered the missing ingredient that could propel them to the grand final, describing a rejuvenated Cartwright as their semi-final X-factor.
A knee injury midway through the season would have seen most players sidelined for around a month. But, given the off-field issues that surfaced at the start of the year, the Panthers gave Cartwright the option to take up to three months away from the game.
He used it to have surgery, which delayed his return to the team, but also allowed him to deal with the mental scars that had been haunting him since the opening round of the competition.
“That was the smart decision and right decision,” close friend and teammate Isaah Yeo said. “He could have rushed back to play a bit more footy to take his mind off things, but that probably would have been detrimental to him. To go away and get his body right and get his head in a good place, it was the best thing he could have done.
“That was a mature decision from him. He had a bit going on at the time and didn’t want to rush back. If he’d rushed back it could have been anything, both mentally and physically. But he’s given himself enough time to get away, debrief and get his body right. That was probably a very mature decision by him and sums him up as a person.”
The Cartwright of old resurfaced on the big stage against Manly in the opening week of the finals, putting the Broncos on notice ahead of Friday night’s do-or-die clash at Suncorp Stadium.
Injuries and off-field dramas have left Cartwright a shadow of the player the Panthers re-signed on a multimillion-dollar, long-term deal last year. He was struggling to make an impact in a team he almost led to the grand final 12 months ago.
But a two-try performance from Cartwright against the Sea Eagles last Saturday night has given Penrith a belief they can go to another level against Brisbane.
“It’s just a whole different dimension to the side really,” Yeo said of a firing Cartwright.
“We obviously have all this structure and the game plan, but he’s that off-the-cuff kind of player and that’s very rare in rugby league these days. He can play wherever he wants. Five-eighth, back row, lock … I think he even lined up in the front row for one of the drop outs. When he’s playing well it’s a massive boost for this side. He’s the X-factor for us.
“I think over the last couple of weeks he’s been getting a bit more confidence and floating around on both sides of the field. When he’s doing that, it’s a massive bonus for this side. That showed the other night. He’s got all the time in the world when he’s playing well, he’s confident. It was very good to see him perform on the big stage in what has been a rough year for him. I’m just extremely happy for him.”
Yeo is one of Cartwright’s closest friends at the club. He openly admits how difficult it was to see Cartwright struggling physically through injury and mentally after abortion claims surfaced on the day of the Panthers’ opening game of the season.
Some at the club feared Cartwright would never fully recover from the ordeal, but Yeo insists he never lost faith in the man he came through the club’s junior ranks with.
“When you cop as many hits as he has this year, you’re probably going to waver a little bit,” Yeo said.
“I always thought we’d still see the best of Bryce Cartwright. [Saturday] night was just one game but it means nothing if we as a team don’t do anything next week. It was probably a bit of karma. He’s had a rough trot. For him, in an elimination final, to perform like he did, it’s really nice for the year he’s had.
“You wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, but especially when you are so close to him it’s tough. You just have to try and be there for him. You try and not change too much. You know he’s going through a bit but you still try and laugh and joke around and all that stuff. It’s just been a really tough year for him both on and off the field. To see him do what he did on the big stage the other night, it made me happy.”