Last round the Panthers faced the prospect of losing every bit of the momentum they gained over the second half of 2016. It was a grim prospect, and you could see it on every player’s face as they tried to come to terms with where all their potential had gone. While they might have managed to salvage a little bit of pride in the second half, it was critical that they make an absolutely definitive statement in Round 10 to show that they still had what it takes to make finals footy in 2017.
At first, it seemed as if they weren’t going to be able to make that statement on Saturday afternoon at ANZ Stadium. In fact, the first half of the game seemed like the final nail in the coffin, as an early four-pointer from Isaah Yeo was followed by a stream of Warriors tries that saw the visitors soar to a twenty-two point differential by the first siren. The last few minutes of the first half seemed to say it all, as Penrith kept on glimpsing field position and building their momentum until finally an error from Blake Ayshford in the play-the-ball gave them the chance they needed.
Rather than the Panthers make good on that chance, however, a sloppy pass from Nathan Cleary on the last tackle before the siren allowed David Fusitua to intercept the Steeden and run the entire length of the field for the second time in the afternoon. Once again, Waqa Blake chased him down and, once again, Blake brought him to ground. This time around, however, Fusitua managed to get up and leave Blake behind him, circling around to plant it under the posts in the most emphatic conclusion to a first half of football that I’ve seen this year.
With that kind of gesture, it felt inconceivable that the Panthers would be able to take control of the narrative, and yet over the course of the second stanza they managed their biggest comeback since playing against the Wests Tigers in 2000, forcing the Warriors into a historical loss from twenty-two points ahead. It goes without saying, then, that this was the most remarkable comeback of 2017, and the single greatest surge of momentum for a team this year as well, with the mountain men bringing in four tries in fifteen minutes and thirty unanswered points in the second half.
As a result, it was a game of two halves – and two halves pairs, with Shaun Johnson and Kieran Foran dominant in the first stanza, and Nathan Cleary and Bryce Cartwright dominant in the second. Similarly, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was on fire before the break but had a bad run of it in the second half, allowing Blake to run over him, fumbling Cleary’s most dangerous bomb of the afternoon, and knocking on right on the Panthers’ goal line just when it was most crucial that New Zealand should regain possession. Matt Moylan, on the other hand, stepped up in a new way after the siren, rallying the team around him until they were almost unrecognisable as the dour, depressed outfit whose season had initially seemed destined to end that afternoon.
The strange thing about the game was that each team offered an exemplary forty minutes of football – it was just that the Panthers were slightly better in the second half. On the New Zealand side, it was fitting that Foran brought home the first four points five minutes in, since he would turn out to play a key role in most of the subsequent tries. In a fairytale twist, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad managed to cross twice in only his third NRL game – after playing for the Cook Islands last week and debuting for the Warriors the week before – and already feels like an integral part of the team in his ability to sync up with the spine and backline. The first time he was set up by a series of great catch-and-passes anchored in RTS, the second time he made it off the back of a 40/20 and perfectly timed grubber from Foran, but in both cases he read his team mates perfectly and made good on their assists with aplomb.
Ryan Hoffman also added points, running straight through the Panthers defence and showing up some fairly scrappy play from Blake and Cartwright, while Fusitua’s efforts just before the break were outstanding, especially because it was the second time he had run the length of the field. With the first chase ending with a professional foul and ten minutes in the bin for Blake, it felt as if the Warriors were repeating history just because they could, and you could see from the look on the Penrith centre’s face that he was seething on behalf of the entire team for every single frustrating moment over the last few weeks.
For the Panthers, there was nothing particularly auspicious about Isaah Yeo putting down points six minutes into the second half, since he’d done exactly the same thing six minutes into the first half, but to no avail. Instead, the real shift in momentum came several minutes later, when Dallin Watene-Zelezniak managed a back-to-back try off the back of a perfect floating bomb from Cleary.
Several things made this a key turning-point, but the most significant was that it was the first time in some weeks that Cleary has really been able to capitalise on the sublime kicking game he was showcasing at the end of last year. In recent weeks he’s often chosen to grubber or run the ball, and when he has bombed it hasn’t always turned out as seamlessly as planned, with fifth-tackle options costing the Panthers much of their momentum against the Broncos and the Eels.
At this point in the match against the Warriors, however, it was like watching a textbook example of how a great bomb should destroy an opposing side, with RTS unable to catch it and instead flicking it back to Cartwright, who offered a mirror fifth-tackle option with a wide kick out to the wing, where DWZ was unmarked and so able to curve around gracefully and plant the Steeden close enough to the goal posts to set Cleary up for the next conversion. From the moment Cleary’s boot hit the ball to the moment DWZ placed it to ground, it was a sequence of utter elegance, and no wonder that it produced a sudden and galvanising momentum amongst the Penrith players.
In fact, from this point on it was almost like watching a different team, as the fans who had been booing and leaving just before half time provided the boys with the surge they needed to push forward. Running on pure momentum, a quick skip and line break from Yeo provided Blake with the space to run the length of the field, slamming through RTS to in a mirror image of Fusitua’s try just before half time. This time, however, it was Blake who was doing the running, instead of being run over, and the symmetry of it all seemed to convince the Panthers that this half could and would belong to them as emphatically as the first half had belonged to the guests.
Moments later, Moylan went over with an uncharacteristic twist-and-score, barging at the line more like a forward than a fullback, and taking the Panthers to the front for the first time. For the rest of the game their momentum was devoted to maintaining that two point differential, until a line break from DWZ found space for Tyrone Peachey to outpace Foran and put the Panthers a converted try ahead. Faced with the hardest conversion of the night, Cleary delivered with the boot, and with an eight point lead there was no way that the Warriors were going to come from behind in the final three minutes.
Without a doubt, then, this will come to be seen as the turning-point for Penrith this season, since even if they don’t make it all the way to finals footy they’ve now got enough of a sense of pride and purpose to continue consolidating their talent pool over the coming weeks, which might not have been possible in the same way if they’d suffered yet another debilitating loss. On the other side of the Steeden, the Warriors have had yet another second half blunder, and it’s going to be a grim week for New Zealand fans before they try to get some catharsis against the Dragons at Mt. Smart next Friday night.