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Official Review by Lloyd Rothwell, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Penrith is located at the far western edge of the Sydney metropolitan area, at the foot of the Blue Mountains. The Penrith Panthers were admitted to the NSW Rugby League, now the National Rugby League (NRL), in 1967 along with the Cronulla Sharks. The club originally wore brown and white uniforms, leading to their unofficial nickname of the “Chocolate Soldiers.”
The Panthers struggled for many years despite a strong local junior competition, finally breaking through for their maiden premiership in 1991, winning a famous grand final over the more-fancied Canberra Raiders. However success has been sporadic with only one other premiership victory; defeating the Sydney Roosters in the 2003 grand final. Penrith has recently re-built their playing roster under the watchful eye of master coach turned GM Phil Gould.
Penrith Stadium, currently known as Pepper Stadium, has a capacity of 22,500 and opened in 1967. It is owned by the local council and the Panthers are the main tenant. Several rugby league test matches have been played at Penrith, including a number between Pacific island nations.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The best place to buy your food is just inside the main western entrance. A number of food tents are located here, along with the West Bar.
There is a surprising variety of food at Pepper Stadium, particularly when compared to other more suburban NRL venues. Using the forecourt as a food hub works well and gives the feeling of a marketplace. The West Bar stocks the standard pies, sausage rolls and hot dogs if you're that way inclined. The aforementioned food tents provide a range of options including wood fired pizza ($14 for a pizza/drink combo), chicken and chips ($10), fish and chips ($10), dagwood dog ($8), beef burger ($8), souvlaki ($12), and cheese toasties ($3). Of note is the Hot Rocks BBQ stand which offers steak sandwiches, pork belly rolls, and chicken schnitzel burgers all for $10.
The West Bar offers a good selection of beverages including light, mid and full strength beer, pre mixed spirits, wine and soft drinks. Be aware that there are prices for members and non-members.
I recommend buying your food as you enter if possible. If you prefer to purchase at half time, be aware there will be queues. The BBQ Stand smell lingers throughout the venue and their food tastes great.
Pepper Stadium is an older, suburban venue and as such fits the basic design of that era - large stands on either side with hills at each end.
The main entrance features a façade which helps improve the aesthetics. There are a number of Panthers logos at this point, as well as on the top of the eastern stand. Immediately inside the entrance you're directed through a merchandise shed. The upper deck seats in the eastern stand spells out "Panthers."
There are minimal promotions offered at Penrith. Yes, there are cheerleaders and a mascot, but little beyond that. However, it is worth mentioning the ground announcer, who while being fairly one-sided as you'd expect, displays a good sense of humour and adds to the atmosphere without being overbearing.
The grandstands are reserved seating, but much of the ground level seating is designated as general admission. Be aware that the northern hill is largely a family area, which means no alcohol. This is enforced by security. Ushers guard the reserved seating areas. The southern hill has minimal elevation so large numbers of fans stand in this area. Plenty of families bring chairs and blankets which is a good idea. The eastern stand receives the afternoon sun.
Penrith is a major centre of Western Sydney, with the local area being one of the most populous in the state.
The Penrith Panthers Leagues Club is one of the largest registered clubs in NSW. It is the closest and most attractive option for entertainment close to the stadium. There are numerous food options including burgers, pizza, seafood, steak, noodles and more. Indeed there are also outlets for Harry's Café de Wheels (pies), and Oliver Brown Belgian Chocolate Café located on site, in addition to several bars and gaming areas. Other activities that might be of interest are a driving range where you hit into a lake and cable wakeboarding water park.
In the same area across the road are an indoor skydiving centre and several chain restaurants including McDonalds and Outback Steakhouse.
Other pubs close by include the Australian Arms (previously owned by former rugby league great Ricky Stuart) and O'Donoghue's Irish Pub across the river in Emu Plains. There's also plenty of pubs closer to the CBD and a Westfield Shopping Centre.
A number of sporting and recreation facilities are nearby. The Penrith Ice Palace, now home of the Sydney Bears AIHL ice hockey team is only minutes away. The Nepean River is one of the major geographical features of the area, along with Penrith Lake which includes both the Sydney International Regatta Centre and Penrith Whitewater Stadium, both venues built for the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics. The Penrith Emus rugby club plays at Nepean Rugby Park and the Penrith Paceway next door has harness racing on Thursday nights.
The world heritage-listed Blue Mountains are also easily accessible from Penrith, by either rail or road. The Mountains effectively mark the western edge of the Sydney metropolitan area and form part of the Great Dividing Range, which extends almost the length of the continent from north to south. Many of the historic towns are worth visiting including Leura, Wentworth Falls and the major towns of Katoomba and Lithgow. The natural beauty of the area is well worth a visit, including "The Three Sisters" rock formation and Jenolan Caves. There's plenty of opportunities for bushwalking and outdoor adventuring, but be sure to prepare properly.
In summary, there's plenty to do in the local area but in Western Sydney car is king - so be prepared to drive to anywhere outside of the precinct across Mulgoa Rd.
Forming part of the Panthers precinct, the Mercure Penrith is the obvious choice for accommodation. Your other main option is Chifley Penrith, although there are also several cheap motels close by.
The Panthers have a solid local fan base, but crowds are down a bit with the team currently fighting hard to compete after numerous injuries.
In recent seasons the Panthers have averaged somewhere around 11,000 per game which is a little disappointing. Rivalries will always attract a bigger crowd - 18,000 is a good figure for Penrith. Look for fixtures against Parramatta and Canterbury.
The game we attended fans were a little reserved, and took a while to warm up. There wasn't a lot of noise until something happened. There's plenty of Panthers merchandise around the stadium, a lot of which are retro jerseys.
Pepper Stadium is accessible by car or public transport.
The nearest train station at Penrith is around a 10 minute walk from the stadium.
Most fans seem to drive. There will be some local traffic congestion from all directions, including the Penrith exits off the M4 motorway. There is free parking in the complex opposite the stadium on Mulgoa Rd, but it does fill quite quickly. There are also relatively cheap paid parking options at the Paceway on the northern side of the stadium (Ransley St) and the cricket club on the southern side (Station St) which will run you about $5.
There is a box office just outside the entry but it's just as easy to buy online and either print them at home or have the link sent to your phone.
Fans tend to mill about outside the entrance waiting for friends or family. There's a bag check at the entrance, but overall there are no difficulties or hassles when entering.
The concourse is quite easy to navigate, although it's a little congested at the southern end. Generally there are no issues with moving around the various areas should you like to move around during the game. The bathrooms are a bit old but serviceable.
Cheap or free parking close the ground seems to be rarity for sport at this level, so this is a huge plus compared to some other NRL venues.
Cheapest Adult Ticket: $25.49
Pulled pork roll: $10
There are discounts for juniors and families.
The overall cost to see a Penrith Panthers home game compares very well with other NRL venues.
The Panthers allow fans onto the ground at the conclusion of the game. This is becoming increasingly common in Australia, and it is always a nice touch. Penrith have capitalised on their name with a "Pink Panther" theme; wearing pink jerseys for the Women in League round. The day we attended, injured star Jamal Idris made his way around the perimeter fence signing autographs and posing for photos.
A Panthers game at Pepper Stadium offers great value for money. Hopefully the team will improve which will improve crowd numbers and fan engagement to further improve the current experience.
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123 Mulgoa Rd
Penrith, NSW 2750
+61 2 4720 5530
351 High St
Penrith, NSW 2750
+61 2 4731 3881
Cnr Mulgoa And Jamison Roads
Penrith, NSW 2750
+61 2 4721 7700