Penrith Panther Bryce Cartwright’s decision to take personal leave mid-season to deal with a range of mental and physical issues was the catalyst for his resurgence in the opening week of the finals, former St John’s junior Isaah Yeo said.
The Panthers offered Cartwright up to three months away from the game, allowing him to have knee surgery and deal with mental scars that had been haunting him all season. It paid off.
The Cartwright of old resurfaced in Saturday’s elimination final against Manly, scoring two tries, and putting the Broncos on notice ahead of Friday’s do-or-die clash at Suncorp Stadium.
“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,” Yeo said of his close friend. “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.”
“I always thought we'd still see the best of Bryce Cartwright.”
Injuries and off-field dramas had 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.
“[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.”