Leniu, Smith go from enemies to grand final teammates

As a kid, Spencer Leniu hated current Penrith teammate Lindsay Smith. Couldn't stand him.

Fast-forward a few years, the pair have set their differences aside and are preparing to run out together for a shot at grand final glory.

Smith was an elite junior talent, first joining the Panthers' pathways system at 14, earning selection in the NSW U16s team in 2016 and winning the NRL Schoolboy Cup with Westfield Sports High later that year.

In his spare time, the rangy teenager from Luddenham played park footy for St Mary's Saints, and would often lock horns with fellow middle forward Leniu, who lined up for the Minchinbury Jets.

"I honestly didn't really like him too much," Leniu told AAP.

"Our team and his team were two of the best teams in the comp so we sort of built that hatred for one another.

"There was just this one white boy that was running amok in their team, and it was like, 'Who is this guy?' He was just such a good player and I didn't like that."

Both youngsters were scouted for Penrith's famous junior nursery and began to adjust to life as teammates rather than rivals. It was Leniu who first blossomed into a NRL player.

The Panthers promoted Leniu to their top 30 roster in 2019 and have come to rely on him as their key impact player from the bench, including in the 2022 grand final victory.

Smith has had to be more patient for an opportunity. He began 2023 with only four games of NRL experience, three of which came when star players were rested or on State of Origin duty.

He watched from the fringes of the first-grade side as Leniu, Izack Tago, Stephen Crichton and Taylan May all became household names and Penrith clinched back-to-back premiership victories.

"You're still super stoked and excited but definitely there's some part of you that wants to be a part of that 17 on the (grand final) day," Smith told AAP.

Smith again began this year in NSW Cup but managed to snare a spot on the bench a month into the season.

The 23-year-old has since become a near-permanent fixture of Ivan Cleary's bench, missing only one game between round five and the grand final.

"I can't believe it at the moment, to have played as many games as I have this year. I'm stoked," he said.

Now, Smith finally has the chance to get in on the grand final action, having been named on the bench to face Brisbane this Sunday. No one is prouder of him than frenemy-turned-front row teammate Leniu.

"I can't talk about him enough. All the hard work's paying off now and it's good to see," Leniu said.

"I'm just keen to see the man he's becoming. He's got a massive future ahead of him."