There’s always a special intensity to the first game after Origin has concluded. Leaving aside the outcome of Origin itself, which sees some players on a runner’s high and some players with something to prove, the end of the state-against-state clash turns the finals into the next big footy horizon, and suffuses them with a new sense of immediacy and urgency. In that respect, you couldn’t ask for a better post-Origin clash than the match between the Warriors and the Panthers at Mt. Smart on Friday night, since both sides went into the game entirely equal at this point in the 2017 season.
While this wasn’t exactly an eliminator, it was a critical turning-point along the road to finals footy for both teams, and all the more momentous in that this was also Manu Vatuvei’s farewell match, with Mt. Smart being made over as Manu Vatuvei Stadium for the occasion. Add to that the fact that the Panthers were fielding a relatively young spine – Dylan Edwards at fullback, Nathan Cleary at hafback and Tyrone May making his NRL debut at five-eighth – in the absence of Matt Moylan, and the stage was set for a particularly gruelling clash.
For all the worthy accolades to Vatuvei, however, this turned out to be a historic match in another kind of way, with Cleary putting in one of the defining games of his career so far, and stepping up to show an aptitude for leadership behind the Steeden that we’ve glimpsed before, but never quite seen showcased to this extent. Scoring an astonishing 22 of the Panthers’ 34 points, he more or less singlehandedly engineered a comeback that saw Penrith put down half of their points in the last twenty minutes of the game, and after a devastating period during which Corey Harawira-Naera was binned and the Warriors managed to get in two tries against a twelve man side.
Still, New Zealand started strong, putting down the first points two minutes in, thanks to some beautiful playmaking from Shaun Johnson, who collected the ball on the right side of the field and put in a stunning show-and-go, dummying to Blake Ayshford only to break through the line. To their credit, the Panthers packed their defence in almost immediately, but Johnson’s quick footwork had given him the edge, allowing him to pop the ball across to Simon Mannering, who bookended the play after having fed Johnson the ball in the first place. From there, it was a hop, step and a jump for the big lock to cross over the line, along with a quick juggle of the ball that just made his and Johnson’s efforts feel all the more lithe and elegant, in one of the classiest opening tries of the last couple of weeks.
The spectacle of those opening four points seemed to dishevel Penrith a bit, with Edwards coughing up a brilliant high ball from Johnson and May dropping the Steeden at the end of a subsequent Penrith set. Still, that just made the Panthers hungrier, culminating with a terrific sequence around the twelve-minute mark. After they busted through a tackle on the left wing, Mitch Rein almost crashed over beneath the posts, turning a scrambling Warriors defence into a panicking Warriors defence, with New Zealand holding on just too long and granting the Panthers another set of six.
Granted, it was a complicated tackle, and difficult for anyone – including Rein – to extricate themselves, but Penrith still got the repeat set, and made the most of it, with both May and Rein almost crashing over, as the visitors surged again and again at the New Zealand line. In the end, it was a grubber from Cleary that did the magic, with Harawira-Naera getting to the Steeden before Ken Maumalo, Solomone Kata and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck failed to clean it up right on the line.
It was a rousing moment for the Penrith second rower, who initially seemed as if he might only be a cameo in first-grade footy at the beginning of the year, but has since become something of a fixture in the Penrith side, and was playing in his homeland for the first time in his NRL career. Full credit has to go to Cleary too, who notched up his eighteenth successive conversion in a row, bringing the scoreline to 6-6, and exuding the calmness and focus that so often helps the Panthers regather after a patchy period in their game.
While the Panthers might have been aggressive in their attack, they had also been lucky enough to be greeted with a fairly lacklustre Warriors defence, with RTS, Maumalo and Kata barely seeming interested in reaching the Steeden before Harawira-Naera got it to ground. It was an important shift for New Zealand, then, when Kata put down points four minutes later, off the back of a dummy and run that played like a compressed version of Johnson’s show-and-go fifteen minutes before. This was probably the one really embarrassing moment for the Penrith defence, with the Warriors centre gathering the ball five metres out from the line, and looking around so carefully and deliberately that the Panthers should have been able to guess his plan before he put his head down and simply burrowed at the line after the slightest of dummies to the right, carrying three Penrith players with him before getting the ball to ground.
After an especially dynamic series of plays on the previous tackle, including a terrific offload from Ben Matulino and a loping crossfield drift from Issac, the brevity and deliberation of Kata’s four points was something to behold, and with Johnson adding the extras once again it felt as if the Warriors had regained the spirit of their opening four points. The feeling only lasted a few seconds, however, since in one of those twists of fate that can make the Warriors achievements feel so precarious, Maumalo coughed up Cleary’s high ball on the next set, leaving it open for Waqa Blake to smash in and slam it over the line.
While Blake may have dropped the ball in the process of grounding it, Bunker footage showed that Maumalo had knocked the ball on, granting the Panthers the scrum feed and gifting them with another assault on the New Zealand line. To make matters worse, it wasn’t just Maumalo but Kata who had fumbled under the high ball, recalling their gaffe at the tail-end of Cleary’s grubber earlier in the game, and taking the edge of Kata’s four-pointer a couple of minutes before.
Accordingly, it only took the Panthers a couple of minutes to regather, thanks in part to a lopsided kick from Johnson that went out on the full, granting Penrith a bit more room to move. Towards the end of the subsequent set, a pitch-perfect pair of offloads – from Cleary to Trent Merrin, and then from Merrin to May – set up the young five-eighth to give the Minchinbury Jets a treat by scoring in his NRL debut.
In its elegance, dexterity and concision, it was the perfect response to Kata’s short-range effort a couple of minutes before, and beautifully encapsulated the chains of communication that have allowed Penrith’s old and new guard to communicate so seamlessly at their best over the course of the last eighteen months – a synergy between a pair of veterans (Rein sent the ball over to Cleary in the first place), a young gun and a first-grade footy debut that was perhaps the key moment at which the Panthers asserted their ownership of the game, especially once Cleary had sent the ball through the posts yet again.
That momentum was consolidated a couple of minutes later, when the Panthers put down the quickest successive tries yet in the game, with Cleary crashing over at the thirty-fourth minute and then converting his own try for good measure, putting the Warriors behind for the first time of the night. If Cleary and Merrin’s try assists had felt like a riposte to Kata’s short-range try, then here Cleary mirrored his efforts on the other side of the field, finding himself with the Steeden on the right edge and dummying out to the wing before pivoting off his right foot and storming back inside, crashing through three Warriors defenders much as Harawira-Naera had managed to outplay three defenders about twenty minutes before.
This time, Cleary didn’t quite make it to the line, but he didn’t have to, stretching out his hand – and his entire body – so that he managed to ground the Steeden just over the chalk, and showcasing his strength and dexterity in a single effort. Watching him, it was easy to forget that Moylan was ever in the halves, so consummate was Cleary’s judgment and leadership, in what would already probably have been seen as a pivotal moment in his rise to greatness even without his pair of tries in the second stanza. To make matters worse for the Warriors, Kata appeared to have crossed over two minutes out from the end – the referees almost didn’t refer it upstairs – only for slow motion to show that the New Zealand centre had knocked the Steeden on ever so slightly with his left hand – a revelation that, at this crucial point, was tantamount to the Warriors reliving Cleary’s try all over again.
It was even more heartbreaking, then, when Johnson culminated a scintillating final Warriors set with a mad dash up the left side of the field ten seconds out from the siren. For a moment, it looked as if Johnson himself might crash over, but as Maumalo sped up on the wing it seemed all but inevitable that they would link up, only for a trysaving tackle from Blake to bring the New Zealand halfback to the ground before he could pop the ball across, winding him severely in the process and ending the first stanza on a distinctively dour note for the hosts, especially compared to Johnson and Mannering’s stunning interplay in the opening minutes.
Despite a fairly uninspiring start to the second half from the home team, the Warriors received a boon about six minutes in, when a pair of hard runs from Edwards and Josh Mansour came to naught after Dallin Watene Zelezniak lost control of the ball when struggling out of a tackle from Bunty Afoa. The New Zealand second-rower continued to reap dividends at the beginning of the next set, when the Warriors clocked up another penalty after he was held in too long in the tackle.
Seeing that he was ahead of the pack and outside the ten, Luke made one of his best snap judgements in months, opting for a quick tap and surging forwards to force Harawira-Naera to commit offside, resulting in the big second rower being sent off for ten minutes, in one of the softest sinbinnings of the 2017 season. From there, the Warriors made the most of their thirteen-man advantage, culminating with a deft pass from RTS to send Kata over the line. At first, it looked as if Afoa might have undone his earlier work by taking Cleary out of the field of play, but the Bunker decided that the young halfback had taken a bit of a dive, and so permitted Kata to claim his second try of the night.
The Warriors continued to make the most of Harawira-Naera’s absence too, starting with an extraordinary effort in a Penrith scrum that momentarily shifted the game in the direction of Union, with the New Zealanders packing forward and forcing Cleary to only just burrow out with the ball. A couple of minutes later, Cleary kicked the ball dead, as if to give the Panthers an opportunity to respond in kind by gifting the Warriors the scrum in turn, but it ended up resulting in one of the best New Zealand sets of the night – a tight, focused, propulsive surge back down the other end of the field that started with a terrific run and harbour bridge pass from Luke to Kata, and concluded with a series of spectacular, sweeping passes across to the left side of the field that split the difference between flick and cut-out options, so gracefully did they disregard and dishevel the Panthers line.
At first, it looked as if the Warriors must score in the right wing, but in a final twist Ayshford popped the ball back inside to Bodene Thompson, who ran a hard line to ground it to the right of the posts, albeit not close enough for Johnson to add the extras a couple of minutes later. Still, this was a sterling effort from the Warriors, even if the Panthers were a man down, and if Cleary hadn’t scored shortly after – and then again – they might just have retained control over the momentum of the game, despite Penrith being stronger, overall, throughout the first part of the second stanza.
As fate would have it, however, these would turn out to be the last points put down by the Warriors at Manu Vatuvei Stadium, with the Panthers quickly regathering once Harawira-Naera returned to the field, despite only having three interchanges left. The comeback started with a trysaving tackle from May on Lisone at the sixty-first minute that effectively broke the Warriors’ winning streak, and with Johnson’s hamstring buckling in the backplay during the same tackle it felt as if the momentum had begun to swing back Penrith’s way – a sad sight for New Zealand fans after their halfback had put in such a rousing game.
A couple of minutes later, DWZ appeared to have knocked on, only for the referee to discern a New Zealand hand on the ball, gifting the Panthers their first penalty since the thirty-third minute right on the halfway line. Unfortunately, a tip-on from Edwards to Blake was deemed forward, returning the scrum to Penrith, but the Panthers still managed to maintain their momentum over the subsequent New Zealand set, with Edwards collecting the kick and the mountain men setting in for another attack. After a couple of hit-ups, Campbell-Gillard put Edwards into open space, off the back of a terrific pass from Katoa, and the young fullback surged forward, waiting for the right moment to pass on the inside to Cleary for the first Penrith try since Cleary himself had scored half an hour before.
The former Warriors’ ball boy wasn’t done yet, however, putting down another try eight minutes later, along with his fifth straight conversion of the night. It was the most spectacular try of the night as well, building upon a strong platform from the Panthers, and from Mansour in particular, who managed to get himself into the spotlight more emphatically in these final minutes, and had put through his fourteenth hit-up a couple of tackles before. Still, when it came to the try, it was all Cleary, with the young halfback evincing an Origin or even Australian representative’s dexterity for reading the ruck.
Glimpsing that Luke had come a little ahead of the New Zealand pack, and so freed up the slightest of spaces for him to dodge through, Cleary collected the ball and simply danced around the Warriors defence, before outrunning their backrowers to slam the ball over the line. Technically, it was a show-and-go, but in truth Cleary barely showed the ball, instead simply taking possession and then taking the temperature of the New Zealand ruck, before figuring out, split-second, the best way to run through them.
Ivan Cleary holds the record for the most New Zealand goals against Penrith, and with the conversion Cleary became the equal top tryscorer for Penrith against the Warriors – a statistic that speaks to his extraordinary, prodigious talent, more emphatically on display in this game than in nearly any other, thanks in large part to Moylan’s absence and Edwards’ and May’s comparative inexperience in the spine, both of which forced him to demonstrate a leadership potential we’ve glimpsed before, but never seen showcased as spectacularly as it was in this particular fixture.
By this stage, the Panthers had more or less won, so it was icing on the cake when Cleary brought home a try assist to cap off his hat trick, although he was was probably as surprised as anyone that this fifth tackle kick turned into a try assist, since while it was the kind of high ball that he has made his stock in trade, the Warriors should have been able to clean it up. As it turned out, they simply waited for it to bounce instead of trying to take it on the full, a bizarre decision that led to an even more bizarre spectacle – a good two or three square metres of open space around the ball that Blake just strode into, catching the Steeden on his chest and slamming over the line for the easiest four points of the night.
In fact, so easy had the try been, and so little had New Zealand done in the way of contestation, that the Penrith winger seemed more incredulous than anyone else, almost appearing to momentarily doubt the ease of possession – surely there had to be an error in there somewhere – before the final decision came down. With Johnson watching from the sidelines, it was the worst possible way for New Zealand to see out the game, although, to be fair, the Panthers had also been playing without Moylan, while Merrin’s sidelining and Harawira-Naera’s sinbinning hadn’t made this a foregone conclusion for them either.
As it was, however, Cleary compensated for all that, and while Blake might have grounded the Steeden this was undoubtedly the young halfback’s try in spirit – the perfect conclusion to what will surely come to be seen as one of the groundbreaking moments in his evolution and progression to the next stage in his already spectacular game.