Sunday’s Battle of the Cats was unique in more ways than one, with Dallin and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak fronting up against each other for the first time, and Nathan Cleary and Ivan Cleary also taking each on for the first father-son clash in the NRL since Bob and Darren McCarthy met in Round 4 1990. That family connection gave the build up to the game a friendly, family kind of atmosphere, which is perhaps why this felt like one of the most homegrown western derbies in the competition this year.
Yet this was also one of the most nail-biting games of Round 22 as well, with both teams putting in a rocks and diamonds performance, especially the Panthers. For a while there, it looked as if it might be an even match, despite the fact that Penrith had won eight of their last ten matches (and their last consecutive four), while the Tigers hadn’t enjoyed a single back-to-back win all year. By the one hour mark there hadn’t been a single goal line dropout, and the second half seemed to see the Tigers continually cleaning up the ball right on their goal line as Penrith rotated through one fifth tackle option after another.
In fact, this was a pretty good defensive afternoon all round for the Tigers – at least until the last ten minutes – although their attack was still pretty spotty, with Woods coming up with a critical error in the play-the-ball nine minutes in and Luke Brooks starting the match with a couple of average kicks, the first of which was caught by Dallin Watene-Zelezniak on the full in goal, and the second of which was caught by Dylan Edwards on the full just shy of the try line.
Nevertheless, the Panthers initially found their momentum sapped by two disallowed tries, the first from Tyrone May (denied for a pretty clear obstruction on Woods) and the second from Tyrone Peachey (denied for a more contentious obstruction from Peter Wallace on Matt Eisenhuth). No doubt the Penrith hooker was in the way of the Tigers’ defensive line, but from the way Eisenhuth dove at Peachey you’d have thought that Wallace was the only thing standing between him and a trysaving tackle, which wasn’t really the case.
Add to that a lacklustre tackle from Tim Grant on Peachey and the Tigers were pretty fortunate to keep the score at nil all. Yet their luck shifted a couple of minutes later when an unforced error gifted the Panthers their first points of the night. It took the form of a mistimed pass from Matt McIlwrick straight out of dummy half, and early enough in the tackle account that Peachey was able to run straight through, retrieve possession, and plant the Steeden over the line, as if his previous disallowed try had been only a rough draft.
It was the kind of dispiritingly unprofessional moment for the Tigers that has so often seemed to go unanswered over the course of the 2017 season. Yet in this case Wests made good seven minutes later, as Tui Lolohea chose to run the ball on the fifth tackle and then pivoted on his left foot for an enormous, looping harbour bridge pass – fifteen metres at least – at the very moment before he lost his balance and tumbled headlong into the opposition.
It was a welcome sight for a Tigers outfit whose halves have often struggled to run the ball, especially once Lolohea’s pass miraculously hit Nofoaluma right on the chest, in a testament to the new five-eighth’s delight in broken play and improvisational, free-floating football. A testament, as well, to Nofoaluma’s reliability in the no. 2 jersey, as he managed to maintain possession and slam the Steeden to the ground all in one moment, in a terrific rejoinder to the points put down by his opposing left winger a couple of minutes before.
Clearly, the Battle of the Cats was going to play out around the edges of the field, and sure enough Dallin Watene-Zelezniak was the next to go over, silencing Nofoaluma as emphatically as Nofoaluma had seemed to silence Peachey. Once again, it came off the back of a Tigers error, as a ball fumble from Sauaso Sue led to a clean, quick succession of passes across to the Panthers’ right side, with Peter Wallace, Bryce Cartwright and Nathan Cleary all showing terrific timing and grace under pressure.
Still, special mention has to go to Waqa Blake for putting in some of the best footwork of the game to elude Malakai Watene-Zelezniak and shift the ball over to his brother, who planted it right in the corner for one of his most acrobatic tries of the 2017 season so far. Few other wingers can ground a Steeden as balletically as DWZ, and as usual his gymnastic dexterity was even more spectacular in slow motion, as he cartwheeled into the air and only made the briefest of contacts with the in-goal area by way of the ball before spinning into touch and then jumping up to celebrate, all in a single magnificent movement.
In order to stay in the game the Tigers had to come up with something special, and so they did, with Nofoaluma putting down his second successive try one minute out from the break off the back of a deft right step and flick pass from Esan Marsters just as Tyrone Peachey was bringing him to ground. One minute before, it had looked as if the Panthers might be about to score again, so it was a great shift in momentum for the Tigers as well as a reaffirmation of Nofoaluma as one of their most reliable and responsible players.
They didn’t get to enjoy their high for very long, however, with Dylan Edwards crashing over six minutes into the next stanza for the second try of his first grade career, and his second try against the Tigers. Interestingly, it came at the end of a set that had started with the young fullback nearly coughing up the high ball, only to regain possession and set the Panthers on the path to two successive penalties, the second of which came off the back of a deft quick tap from Wallace that caught the guests offside.
On the the next tackle, Edwards managed to get on the outside of Lolohea, who utterly underestimated his speed and dexterity, and while Marsters may have rushed in at the eleventh hour, it was too little too late. Once again, the balance shifted back to the Panthers, only for Luke Brooks to bring home the third Tigers try ten minutes later, as well as one of the best four-pointers for the black and gold all season.
It started with an intercept, as Michael Chee Kam took his revenge on Peachey’s opening points by co-opting a sloppy pass from May to Wallace and then ran the length of the field before a couple of Penrith defenders converged on him. From there, the ball moved through MWZ, Tedesco and, finally Brooks, who slammed up through the ruck for his single best run of the year to plant it right between the posts.
If Lolohea had managed either of his previous conversions the Tigers would now have been level with the Panthers – or in front – but even as it stood Brooks’ try and the preceding play had been all momentum, from one end of the field to the other, and felt as if it might be a game changer after a fairly dominant twenty minutes from Penrith. While it didn’t involve any direct collaboration between the Tigers’ halves pairs, it was nevertheless a testament to their evolving synergy, with Brooks seeming to take inspiration from the damaging run staged by Lolohea to set up Nofoaluma’s opening try.
For that reason, the Panthers seemed unable to make good on their comparative strength for the next twenty minutes, resulting in a nail-biting sequence in which the mountain men seemed to rehearse every fifth tackle option and the Tigers seemed to rehearse every way in which a fifth tackle option could be thwarted – an even more spectacular display considering that the game was utterly devoid of goal line drop outs.
In one especially agonising sequence, the Panthers were about to crash over, only to lose possession of the ball, which richocheted off Brooks’ leg. Wisely, the young halfback didn’t play at it, and actually managed to ground it when Penrith lost possession again a couple of seconds later, only for the refs to call a knock-on and award a scrum to the home team. It felt right, then, that the Tigers managed to regroup and drag Peachey over the line for the subsequent tackle, and yet it was all reversed when Nofoaluma came up with an error in the ruck a couple of seconds later.
In combination with Woods’ own knock-on a couple of minutes before, this marked a pretty chaotic period for the Tigers, as they suffered an apparently endless wave of assaults on their line as the Panthers seemed poised to go over time and time again, only for the visitors to somehow keep on pulling something out of the bag to prevent them increasing their two point lead. When the Panthers did come good, however, they really came good, accelerating in the last ten minutes to eventually double the Tigers with a 28-14 scoreline, thanks to tries from DWZ and May and a sideline conversion from the ever reliable Cleary.
In the end, it wasn’t actually a fifth and last but a line break that got the Panthers their points, as Corey Harawira-Naera rivalled Chee Kam’s earlier run with a mad dash up through the ruck that saw him smashing through Naiqama and Brooks for a terrific pass out to Blake. From there, it was almost a mirror image of DWZ’s earlier try, as brother Malakai was once again unable to bring down the Penrith centre, who offloaded to his winger for an even more spectacular try than he’d managed to put down at the thirty-third minute.
While Tedesco might have slammed into DWZ for a desperate low tackle, you could be forgiven for thinking that the no. 5 had timed his run to actually use Teddy’s tap to his advantage, spinning through it acrobatically into the air and managing, somehow, to stretch out his hand in the midst of the chaos to ground the Steeden as gently and dexterously as if he’d walked over to the line and placed it down with time to kill. In slow motion it was even more impressive – a balletic fusion of speed, strength and precision – and cemented DWZ’s most scintillating game of the 2017 season.
Even then, however, the Panthers weren’t done, with Tyrone May putting down points two minutes out from the final siren in a nice bookend to his opening disallowed try. Receiving the ball from Wallace he simply slammed through the defence, eluding even Tedesco with a damaging left fend to put down his first try at a first grade level, as the Minchinbury Jets supporters went wild in the crowd. By this stage, it was a mere distant memory that the game had ever been anything like a close competition.
Whatever your affiliation, you’d have to concede that this final try from May was a terrific moment for Penrith rugby league culture – and the crowd knew it, putting in their most passionate show of support since Penrith came away with their unexpected win in Bathurst. At the same time, it set the stage for what is sure to be a galvanising game against the Cowboys at Pepper Stadium next Saturday night, as the Panthers work to maintain and secure their position on the ladder in the build up to finals footy.