Semi-finals football might be off the table for the Penrith Panthers NRL squad, but there is one team in the club that will definitely be there.
With three rounds remaining, the Panthers Holden Cup under-20s team are on top of the table with 40 points.
They are coached by former Panthers forward Cameron Ciraldo who took the job after his playing retirement in 2013.
The under-20s started with a squad of about 50 players at the beginning of the year. They are rotated between playing in the Holden Cup and for feeder club Windsor Wolves in the Ron Massey Cup and the Sydney Shield.
Another requirement for under-20s players is to do at least 24 hours of work or study a week to be eligible to play.
Ciraldo used 36 players, which may seem like a lot, but it is still fewer than last year when the club used 40 in the season.
"The injury toll through the whole club has been tough on everyone," Ciraldo said.
"We've had guys going up to NSW Cup and five players come up from S.G. Ball."
Ciraldo said there was a core group of about eight players who have been there all season, and they have never had the exact same team for two weeks in a row.
"I think you'd find most teams in the Holden Cup would struggle to do that, we're trying to have a look at a lot of players," he said.
"It's more so about developing them and giving them opportunities than winning games."
Without singling any players out, Ciraldo said he is confident there are about eight or nine players in the under-20s squad who are capable of playing NRL in the near future.
"Every one of them has got the opportunity over the next 12 to 18 months," he said.
"It's just about how hard they work," he said.
Ciraldo played 94 NRL games during his career, where he played for Cronulla-Sutherland, Newcastle and Penrith, and also represented Italy at the 2013 World Cup, before injury forced retirement.
He said he has enjoyed the shift from player to coach.
"I'd always had thoughts about it [coaching], but I wouldn't have thought I'd get the opportunity this soon.
"I'd have thought I'd probably start out coaching the local under-13s or something like that."
The story Hard work puts Panthers under-20s at top of Holden Cup ladder first appeared on Penrith City Gazette.