There can be no doubt that Sunday’s match between the Bulldogs and the Panthers will go down in Penrith mythology as one of their most rousing games of the 2010s. Not only did the Panthers manage to keep the Dogs scoreless at 38-0 and achieve their greatest ever winning margin over Canterbury-Bankstown, but Josh Mansour’s return after twelve long weeks on the sideline immediately galvanised the team into their first really decisive recapitulation of the form that they were showcasing in the lead up to last year’s finals.
It makes sense, then, to start with Mansour’s final try, which occurred right before the final siren and in exactly the same place as his try against the Dogs during the preliminaries last year. Given how critical this try was in both Mansour and this new generation of Panthers coming of age as a team – and given that it had also been Mansour’s last try for Penrith before injuring his ACL while on tour with the Kangaroos – there was a sense of pure poetry as he put down his four-pointer and Nathan Cleary converted right on the siren.
That kind of poetry can really cement a game in the popular consciousness, and with Mansour’s final surge the Panthers went from offering up a great performance to offering up an iconic performance. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they manage to muster up a viable shot at finals footy this year – or something close – off the back of this incredible display of conviction. Of course, the Bulldogs were depleted by the absence of James Graham and are still depleted by the absence of Josh Reynolds (although between Frawley stepping up and Reynolds signing with the Tigers it feels as if he’s already on his way out).
Still, you can’t simply attribute the incredible display of Penrith power to a weakened opposition, with the mountain men showcasing all their defensive aptitude from the first minute, pairing incredible offloads with rapid play-the-balls to utterly outpace the opposition, to the point where it often felt as if the Dogs were standing still or playing in slow motion by comparison. When a team can stop Sam Kasiano in his tracks six minutes in you know they mean business, and there was no doubt that we were watching last year’s Panthers, with the 0-14 halftime scoreline not really doing justice to their strength and dexterity.
For that reason, the game pretty much played out as a series of Penrith tries, with the Dogs offering very little in the way of a highlights reel. Corey Harawira-Naera brought home the first four-pointer at the end of a series of repeat sets for Penrith that left Canterbury-Bankstown with virtually no ball over the first minutes. While a one-on-one miss from Moses Mbye gave Harawira-Naera space to get across, Moses was merely the coal face of a scrambling Bulldogs outfit that were already totally outplayed by the Panthers’ organisation and set structure.
If Sunday’s match marked the return of Mansour, then it also marked the return of Mitch Rein to who put down his first points as a Panther fifteen minutes later at the end of a scintillating set in which Cleary, Moylan and Reagan-Gillard all looked as if they might crash over. Picking up the ball on the third tackle right on the Bulldogs’ line, he dummied a pass before burrowing his head down and plunging a metre forward between Josh Morris and Adam Elliot, giving Jarryd Hayne a run for his money with a try that would have made the 49ers proud.
It wasn’t just the return of Mansour and Rein, however, but the rearrangement of the Panthers lineup that seemed to make the difference, with Dylan Edwards donning the no. 1 jersey and Moylan returning to five-eighth. In some ways, that’s always felt like Moylan’s natural home, and so it was on Sunday afternoon, as he brought home the third try for Penrith less than ten minutes after Rein. Again, it felt as if two or three Panthers might have made it through, so scrappy was the Bulldogs defensive line, but as fate would have it Moylan was granted the chance on the back of a deft double around pass from Isaah Yeo.
Again, there was a kind of poetic justice to this try, since the build up mirrored the first part of the set when Moylan managed a deft pass to Yeo, who found open space before almost sending Waqa Blake over the line only for the Penrith winger to be taken out by a great tackle from Will Hopoate. Leading more comfortably from the halves than he has from the back over the last couple of weeks, Moylan was clearly rejuvenated by the return of Mansour and Rein, and his enthusiasm was infectious over the course of the afternoon.
To their credit, the Dogs came back into the second half with a surge – Des must have had some pretty strong words in the sheds – but still couldn’t manage their momentum, giving away two penalties almost immediately, both of them for moves against Mansour, who somehow seemed even more untouchable in the process. After a couple of repeat sets and the Dogs’ first glimpse of some real field position in what seemed like forever, Josh Jackson fumbled a pass from Matt Frawley that was miles forward anyway, returning possession to the Panthers, who scored once again on the subsequent set.
It was a try that decisively undid what little momentum the Bulldogs had managed to muster, and a testament to how well Moylan and Yeo synced over the course of the game, with Yeo going one step further to set up Waqa Blake with a deft offload for one of the most spectacular try assists of the night. No player has seemed to express the pain of the Panthers’ recent run quite like Blake – at least on the field, where he has one of the most plaintive and expressive faces of any NRL player – and so there was something especially cathartic about seeing him able to stamp his mark on this most critical part of the game.
Of course, it couldn’t be a real return to 2016 without something special from Nathan Cleary, and sure enough the game’s most exciting up-and-coming half put down a try of his own minutes later. It came at the end of one of the most remarkable Panthers sets of the night, kickstarted by a brilliant run and line break from Trent Merrin and ending with an unusual – and inspired – grubber from Mansour off the shin, who shimmied through the Steeden at just the right angle for Cleary to leap forward and ground it, in yet another example of the physical courage that drives this wiry young gun to run at the line like a full-blown forward.
Again, to their credit, the Dogs put up a bit more of a fight this set, forcing Penrith to showcase a little more dexterity in moving around and through them. Still, the death knell for Canterbury-Bankstown had come five minutes before, as Canterbury-Bankstown were granted another series of penalties and some great field position, only to cough up the Steeden to Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, who would have scored another try for the Panthers if he hadn’t happened to have knocked it on slightly in the pickup.
With Rein scoring again minutes later off the back of one of Cleary’s legendary bombs – on the set following Cleary’s own four-pointer – it was clear that the best the Dogs could hope for was to rack up as many consolation tries as possible. Bookending the kick chase, Rein popped the ball back to Tyrone Peachey, who moved over to the left before heading back in to link up with Blake to dodge a few Bulldogs and send it over to Rein in turn. From there, the ex-Dragon dodged through the defence and came to ground right in front of the line, only to reach out and plant the Steeden upside down over the back of his head like he was taunting the Bulldogs with a Penrith magic trick.
The last ten minutes of the game alternated between the sublime and the ridiculous, with the Dogs losing all composure and restraint in the face of their greatest loss to the Panthers to date. Not only was Klemmer far grubbier than usual – a disappointing step down from his tightly wound Origin rage – but Craig Garvey was sin binned several minutes after being subbed on – and eight minutes before the end of the game – for a full fisted slap on DWZ. Given that the Panthers also forced Big Sam to cough up the ball, and given the preponderance of scrums in the last five minutes, the effect was one of utter impotence for the Dogs, as Penrith toyed mercilessly with Canterbury-Bankstown’s desperation for a consolation try.
On the other hand, Mansour’s try was a thing of sublimity, for all the reasons mentioned above. It was a beautiful moment, not just in the way in which it marked Mansour’s return after such a debilitating period away, nor in the way in which it brought the Panthers to their biggest historic victory over the Bulldogs, but in the way it evoked his iconic try in the top left corner of the field during last year’s preliminary finals, itself such an iconic moment in both Mansour and this recent Penrith generation coming of age. With Cleary kicking the Steeden through the posts right on the siren, it was a Panthers win for the ages and their most decisive continuation of last year’s energy to date. It’s going to be galvanising, then, to see what both the Panthers and Bulldogs muster next week – bring on Round 14!