ROUND 20: Penrith Panthers v. Gold Coast Titans (Pepper Stadium, 22/7/17)
The Panthers have come away with one of the grittiest and most nail-biting wins of their 2017 season following an early surge from an impressive Titans outfit. Having beaten the Tigers, Dragons and Sharks heading into this clash at Pepper Stadium, Gold Coast were hungry for their first four-win streak since 2014, especially since Saturday afternoon’s match also marked Dale Copley’s 100th game. Yet they left even hungrier, with a pair of tries from Waqa Blake and some stunning leadership from Matt Moylan, Nathan Cleary and Peter Wallace propelling the Panthers into a galvanising finale in the last twenty minutes of the game.
The afternoon started with a pair of injuries – one serious, one not so serious. In the first couple of minutes, Cleary got his leg caught under a tackle from Kevin Proctor, and while he might have shake off the cramp quickly enough, it did lead to an error in the play the ball, granting the Titans a scrum. With a penalty on the first tackle Cleary’s effort was costly indeed, but before Gold Coast had any chance to make good on it Konrad Hurrell was led off the field with a hamstring injury sustained in a trysaving tackle from Dylan Edwards, and a follow-up tackle from Wallace.
Caught between those two incidents, the opening felt like anyone’s game, with both teams repeatedly glimpsing a try only to squander it at the last minute, until Nathan Peats showed a bit of vision out of acting half and Copley broke through the line, sending the ball across to William Zillman in turn. As a former fullback himself, Zillman had a good instinct for how his own fullback would respond, and waited for just the right moment to shift the Steeden across to Jarryd Hayne, who put down one of his most relaxed and assured tries since joining the Titans. Given that their top tryscorer had just limped off the field, it was a critical rallying point for Gold Coast to see their no. 1 put down points in this way – especially as it was Hayne – and the closeness of the game, and their ability to remain genuine contenders, owed no small debt to the way this first try went down.
From the twentieth minute onwards Penrith clocked up a series of penalties, and seemed to panic more and more as the Titans solidified and tightened their attack. That’s not to say they didn’t have any chances, though, with Waqa Blake cleaning up Ash Taylor’s high ball and bursting twenty metres back into the field of play – a show of propulsive energy that prompted a succession of rapid play-the-balls, only for Matt Moylan to opt for a rush pass and bat the ball backwards to Tyrone Peachey right on the Titans’ line, catching his centre by surprise and resulting in a knock-on that found the Panthers back where they started, conceding yet another penalty.
At this point, Penrith really started to panic, putting in some remarkably risky cut-out passes within their own twenty, and almost begging the Titans for an intercept. At the twenty-sixth minute, they had a reprise of their previous, stellar set, with some skittering sideways runs from Blake and Josh Mansour, paired with another series of rapid play-the-balls, that ended with a fumble from James Fisher-Harris right on the Gold Coast line. A forward pass from Nathan Peats to Morgan Boyle – a harsh call if ever there was one – seemed to signal another chance for the sorry Panthers, and yet midway through the tackle count Dallin Watene Zelezniak found himself forced to lob the Steeden back into the field – and straight into the hands of Boyle himself – to avoid being dragged into touch.
What the Panthers needed was a show of experience, expertise and leadership – a show of seniority – and Cleary seemed to sense it a couple of sets later, refraining from his own last-tackle option for a deft offload to Wallace, who put through the kind of grubber that only experience can buy, sending the Steeden off the side of his boot for a dangerous bounce that took Anthony Don completely by surprise in the in-goal area. Granted, Hayne may have showed his own experience by dashing in to clean it up, but it was enough of a blow to the Titans’ confidence – Don’s judgement is usually so good – to make it feel as if the subsequent goal line dropout might well be a turning-point.
As fate would have it, though, Moylan – who had been struggling with a hamstring injury over the back end of this half – opted for a short-range grubber that Proctor managed to clean up one metre out from the line. Shortly after, Cleary kicked the ball dead, with Hayne standing back to let the Steeden skitter past him and look forward to a seven tackle set. By this stage, the Panthers had blown about every chance they’d had and every strategy they’d implemented. What they needed was a simple, direct sign of dominance, and they got it during the next set, when a well-timed tackle from Corey Harawira-Naera forced Roberts to cough up the ball.
Ever the opportunist, Blake collected it with one hand, and made good on his two skittering runs earlier in the game. This time, however, he didn’t rely on a succession of play-the-balls, taking the entire length of the field in his stride to ground the Steeden right beneath the posts, and set up Cleary for one of his easiest conversions of the year. In its stunning simplicity, in its speed and strength, and in the way in which it made good on the Panthers’ previous aborted efforts, it was the perfect way to stage a comeback, and with Cleary slotting through a penalty goal five minutes into the second stanza it felt as if Penrith were ready to rock once again.
It would be hard to overestimate the exuberance, then, when Blake scored for a second time on the back of Cleary’s penalty goal, eight minutes into the second half. Once again, the young halfback provided the vision, collecting the Steeden after a pair of hard, short runs up the left side from Mansour and Peachey, and some movement up the centre from James Fisher-Harris. If Wallace’s experience had helped steady Penrith for the first try, then Cleary showed just how well beyond his years he is in the calmness and assurance he brings to his game, choosing not to kick the Steeden but instead squaring up the play and waiting, calmly, for Peats and Greenwood to come in out of the line.
From there, he sent the ball across to Moylan, who got it to Edwards in turn – a lovely pair of passes that cleared up enough space for Blake to crash over for his double. Combined with Mansour, Peachey and Fisher-Harris, it was a true team effort, although full credit has to go to Cleary for his vision and leadership, capped off with a stunning kick to bring the Panthers to a 14-6 lead. The Panthers didn’t have much time to celebrate their resurgence, however, with one of the worst referee calls of the season providing Gold Coast with the momentum needed to ground their second try.
It started down the Titans’ end of the field, where Leivaha Pulu stuck out a boot to trip Mansour in an obvious – and obviously intentional – obstruction. Nevertheless, the referees failed to pick it up and, to make matters worse, awarded a penalty to the Titans a couple of seconds later, for a fairly soft – and clearly unintentional – late tackle from Peachey on Roberts. Stunned by the decision, the Panthers rolled over as the Titans made their way back down the other end of the field, where a brilliant grubber from Taylor bounced in all directions, totally eluding Mansour, who reached out a hand to it but found himself falling back behind the Steeden, in a frustrating repeat of his tripped motion a couple of tackles before.
As it was, Anthony Don barely managed to take control of the bounce – it was almost too good a kick to ground – but somehow got it to turf for his ninth try of the season. Despite the dexterity and brilliance of the kick, however, it was hard to fully enjoy it given that it had come on the back of such a drastic refereeing error, and the Panthers – and Penrith fans – seemed to feel the same way, having already seen Pulu’s trip repeated several times, from a clear vantage point, on the Pepper Stadium screens. When Roberts’ conversion bounced off the posts, then, it was a minor, but critical, rallying point for the mountain men, who despite still enjoying a 14-10 lead felt almost as debilitated as they had in the first stanza, so quickly and frustratingly had the sublime spectacle of Blake’s double been consigned to the past.
As the hour mark approached, Blake almost crashed over once again, only for a trysaving tackle from Zillman to prevent him making a hattrick. Clearly, the Panthers needed something more than mere sportsmanship to get back in the game – they needed attitude, and a show of swagger to put the opposition in their place after having been so crushed by the call against Peachey and the apparent disregard for Mansour’s trip. In one of his most decisive gestures as skipper this season, Moylan provided just that, intercepting a pass from Taylor to Pulu – sweet revenge indeed for Penrith fans – and then speeding back to plant the Steeden over the line without having left the Panthers’ twenty.
Intercepts are usually spectacular, but this was particularly elegant, with Moylan timing it as if he’d been an integral part of the Gold Coast play all along, and shrugging off his hamstring complications from earlier in the game in a display of leadership to match that of Cleary in his previous trymaking pass. With Cleary slotting the Steeden through the posts as effortlessly as ever, this was arguably the real comeback moment, and the emotional catharsis of the game for Panthers supporters; the point at which the mountain men finally managed to get a decisive hold on the afternoon, after a sixty-five minute slog that must count among their best efforts of 2017.
The final Penrith try from Dallin Watene Zelezniak was just the icing on the cake, and an extra special something for the fans, coming off the back of a pair of superb, audacious pair of cut-out passes from Sione Katoa and Cleary that encompassed nearly the entire width of the field. While Cleary might not have managed the final conversion, it didn’t matter, not simply because he’d provided yet another brilliant try assist, but because there’s something about the spectacle of DWZ scoring that’s become inextricable from the Panthers at their best. Whenever he goes down in the right wing, it’s a good sign that Penrith are gelling seamlessly, let alone when the buildup is as fluid as it is here – and the sheer ease with which he caught and grounded the Steeden seemed to surprise even DWZ himself.
By this point, the Panthers had more or less won, but after such a stunning contest – and one of their best games of the season – it would have been disappointing not to see the Titans come away with a consolation try in the dying minutes of the game. Not surprisingly, it came from Roberts, who collected the ball from Taylor by way of Proctor, headed for the right wing, and made as if to pass but somehow never did, instead crashing over the turf himself while the Penrith defence waited to see who would catch the Steeden from him. It was a perfect way to finish, for at least two reasons. First, it brought the scoreline to a closer 24-16, and a close scoreline was the truest reflection of the game, as well as the lengths Penrith had gone to win it.
Second, seeing Roberts momentarily turn himself into a no. 5 poetically captured the flexibility with which the Titans had adapted themselves to everything Penrith had thrown their way, DWZ’s final try included, even if it didn’t end up getting them the win. The result was the best kind of footy game to watch – close, tight, hard-won, and a testament to the professionalism and passion of both teams involved. To the end, the Titans dug in, and while a miscalled forward pass for Hayne might have momentarily made up for the missed call on Mansour, that too had vanished into the past by the time the final whistle blew, with both teams able to congratulate themselves on having put in one of their best games of football this season.
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