The Panthers have come away with a rousing win over the Bulldogs at Pepper Stadium despite one of Nathan Cleary’s most inconsistent nights with conversions in some time. With the score tied at 8-8 heading into the break, it seemed as if it might be any team’s game, but over the second stanza Penrith gradually consolidated field position and possession, breaking through twenty minutes of deadlock and eventually managing to keep the Dogs out for the back half until they had doubled them at 16-8, in their grittiest forty minutes of football in some weeks.
Following an opening penalty goal for Cleary, both teams were fairly clinical in completing sets, although the young halfback’s superb efforts with the boot ensured that Penrith always had the competitive edge. The shift in momentum arguably came about nine minutes in, when Josh Jackson made massive metres after contact and racked up a penalty for the Dogs in the process. Rather than take the two, as Penrith had done a couple of minutes before, Canterbury decided to take a shot at the line.
It should have been their moment of consolidation, but in a somewhat embarrassing move Aiden Tolman got in front of Josh Reynolds as he was speeding towards the in-goal area, letting the Panthers off with an obstruction goal. From there, Penrith seemed to consolidate on the back of the Bulldog error – especially when, a couple of sets later, Reynolds put in a fairly average fifth-tackle kick and then gifted the mountain men a penalty to boot with what was deemed to be a dangerous tackle.
A few minutes later, the Dogs seemed to have regained a bit of composure, handling a goal line dropout with one of the short balls that had been their signature earlier in the year. The Panthers responded in kind, however, with Dallin Watene Zelezniak putting in a massive kick return a few minutes later, and then copping a massive hit-up while managing to offload to Dylan Edwards with three Canterbury forwards dragging him to ground.
With Edwards himself making impressive metres after contact for such a small frame, the Panthers clearly had the belief to put down points, and the penalty they received on the next tackle just seemed to promise that DWZ and Edwards’ massive efforts – they were already more than halfway down the field – were going to pay dividends. Sure enough, the ball moved through nearly every pair of Penrith hands over the next few tackles, with one player after another disheveling the Dogs defence, only for Edwards to finish it off with a superb chip that deflected off Moses Mbye and launched into the in goal area with every player converging to try and take control of it.
Tolman stood the best chance of booting it into touch, but Peter Wallace was faster, storming forward and leaping onto the Steeden moments before they both skidded over the dead ball line. Given Cleary’s astonishing kicking prowess over the game so far – and the previous weeks – it was a testament to Penrith’s depth of talent that Edwards could also manage to pull such a brilliant try-assisting kick, and with Cleary adding the extras as effortlessly as ever it was clear that the Panthers were leading with the boot.
Given the way in which Penrith had showcased their skills in organisation, communication and fifth-tackle options, the Dogs needed a show of individual strength to get back in the game, as well as a display of leadership from one of their veterans to rival Wallace’s serene command of the field. As always in these situations, Reynolds was the man for the job, especially as the first half of the game had been plagued by some relatively poor decisions and playmaking on his part.
Yet part of the power of Reynolds’ inconsistency is that his moments of brilliance are always all the more surprising and galvanising when they do occur – and one of them occurred about ten minutes in, with the future Tiger putting in a damaging left step to plunge between Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Leilani Latu from about ten metres out and then drag them over the line with him, along with a selection of other Penrith defenders who surged in when they saw Reynolds had managed to get through. It was too later, however, and the fact that the Canterbury five-eighth grounded the Steeden right beneath the posts just made this feel even more like a statement of purpose, setting Kerrod Holland up for a seamless conversion a couple of minutes later to bring the scoreline to 8-6.
As the clock wound down to half time, both teams tried but were unable to make a significant dent in the scoreline. With Sam Kasiano taken off the field with an injury, the Dogs were forced to rearrange the front row, while DWZ put in a damaging fullback-like run in a reprise of his earlier precursor to Wallace’s try, only to cough up the ball. From there, things got messy, with Hopoate appearing to knock on at the back of the scrum, but the refs not seeing it, only for Frawley to get a penalty shortly after and then opt to take the two, returning the scoreline, quite symmetrically, to 8-8 as the players headed into the sheds.
Whether because the Dogs had had the final word, or because they hadn’t been able to consolidate their lead as they might have liked, the Panthers struggled to take control of the second stanza, leading to a period of sustained stalemate until DWZ scored just before the hour mark. One minute in, a high shot from Isaah Yeo on Reynolds got the Bulldogs back within their twenty, while two minutes later Cleary booted the ball out on the full after opting for a torpedo kick to the left as the Canterbury defence were bunching the Penrith players up from the right. It was a rare error of judgement from the young halfback, and compounded by an aborted 40/20 attempt from Wallace.
Meanwhile, the Panthers were forced to negotiate their own reconfiguration of the front row, with Latu taken off with a suspected fractured jaw, and Tamou popping on in his place, although with Adam Elliott taken off shortly after the Dogs once again seemed to have drawn the short straw in terms of injuries sustained over the course of the night. About ten minutes in, it looked as if the Panthers might have a chance to break the stalemate, thanks to a sequence of three stellar sets that started when one of Cleary’s grubbers bounced off Frawley’s boot, and was deemed to be played at by the Bulldogs five-eighth.
Despite the considerable experience on both sides, it felt as if the halves might be where Penrith would win this, so this encounter between Cleary and Frawley seemed to bode well for the mountain men, with two more sets forcing the Dogs into some stellar defence as Tamou, Blake, Edwards and DWZ all came close to crashing over, only for Canterbury to steadfastly maintain their line. The Panthers got another chance a few minutes later, though, when a messy play-the-ball from Holland to Hopoate granted Penrith the scrum feed. On the fifth tackle, Cleary started a beautiful sequences of passes that saw the ball move through Edwards and Blake before reaching DWZ, who grounded it in the wing as elegantly as he ever has.
While Dallin’s putdown was superb, full credit has to go to a spectacular pass from Blake – the try assist of the night – who managed a no-look, one-hand flick pass with Josh Morris around his legs and Holland leaping onto his torso. After such an extended deadlock, the next try was always going to be emotional, but the fact that Reagan Campbell-Gillard had prevented James Graham getting to the play made the Bulldogs skipper as angry as he has ever been on the field, with only the rapidly shifting play preventing this being a full-blown obstruction. No doubt, it was a foolish move from RCG, but its very audacity – and the fact that he pulled it off – just made the try feel all the more emphatic, even or especially as Cleary didn’t manage to make the conversion this time around.
Given how momentous these four points were in the context of the game, the Panthers might have been expected to build a bit of momentum and coast over again almost immediately. As it turned out, however, they had to wait until around the seventieth minute, and even then depend upon a Bulldogs error right on the line to put down points. Receiving a looping cut-out pass from Tyrone May, Peachey acted like halfback, centre and winger in one, chipping the Steeden into the corner, where Hopoate was waiting for it.
In a moment of uncharacteristic clumsiness, however, Hoppa got hands to the ball – and almost had it in his grasp – only to be disheveled by the bounce and then pivot almost three hundred and sixty degrees around the Steeden without being able to regain possession. Whether the Bulldogs fullback had been expecting the ball to travel further over the line, or had underestimated Peachey’s skill with the boot, or was too anxious to avoid a knock-on, was unclear, but Mansour’s tackle came in at the perfect moment, getting Hopoate to earth as Peachey sailed over to ground his grubber as if Hoppa’s involvement had always been part of his game plan.
It was a dexterous moment for the Penrith centre, and a good advertisement of his talents with Dean Whare also vying for his jersey, but was slightly undercut by Cleary coming up with his second successive failed conversion – a normal result for some of the NRL’s other kickers, but almost unheard of for the game’s greatest sharpshooter. Combined with his kick out on the full earlier in the game, it was clearly a frustrating moment for Cleary, and a reminder of just how much the team depends upon his pitch-perfect precision with the boot. Still, at double the Dogs score, the Panthers had come away with a solid enough win, especially given the equal score of the opening half and the deadlock that started the second, even if the mountain men probably headed into the sheds with relief more than the elation that has accompanied some of their more spectacular victories in 2017