Stakes were pretty high for both the Panthers and the Cowboys heading into this weekend’s match, with Penrith having snuck their way into the top eight last weekend, and North Queensland coming off the back of two successive losses following four wins in a row. While the Cowboys have consolidated more and more in Johnathan Thurston’s absence, this could only be described as a setback game for the home team, with Justin O’Neill and Michael Morgan both taken off the field with what looked as if they might be season-ending injuries, and Shaun Fensom and Lachlan Coote having their fair share of scares as well.
Nevertheless, the Cowboys started the game strong, gaining a goal line dropout and repeat set early on, despite Matt Moylan managing to clean up the ball pretty well on both occasions, in the beginning of what would be a stellar game for the future Shark after three weeks off the field. The first time around, Morgan sent through a brilliant grubber that skidded on the ground before bouncing on its tip to richochet a couple of metres above Dylan Edwards, who had initially been right in line to receive it. Thinking quick, however, Moylan positioned himself behind his fullback – became a back-up fullback – to clean up the ball.
On the subsequent set, Moylan once again showcased his superb ability to read the game, diffusing a tense moment at which the fifth-tackle grubber bounced off the North Queensland defence and sat up half a metre out from the line for any Cowboy to scoop up and score. They didn’t get a chance, however, with Moylan launching in and regaining possession for the Panthers, in the first big let-off of the game. Still, the Cowboys had managed to build a fair amount of momentum, and had already put a fair amount of pressure on the Penrith forwards, and with a penalty at the beginning of a set a few minutes later, they once again got down Penrith’s end and consolidated the field position they needed to score.
Moving from one side of the field to the other, and managing to fit a lot into each tackle, the visitors eventually focused on the left corner, getting the ball across to Javid Bowen in the wing, who initially looked set to score only for the Penrith defence to trap him on the edge of the field. To his credit, though, Bowen stayed in the field of play, quickly flicking the ball back inside to Kane Linnett to cross over for the first try of the night after Waqa Blake overran his line and Dallin Watene Zelezniak failed to anticipate Bowen’s deft pass.
So far, North Queensland had enjoyed nearly all the momentum, but two events put a dent in that following on from Linnett’s try. First, and most dramatically, Justin O’Neill was sent off shortly afterwards with an arm injury – a sobering spectacle for North Queensland fans and players given the extent to which the back end of their season has already been shaped by player injuries. The Panthers seemed to sense the ebb in momentum, too, and make the most of it, with Moylan cleaning up a North Queensland fifth-tackle option for the third time sixteen minutes in, and Penrith receiving a much-needed penalty shortly afterwards.
Just when it seemed as if the Cowboys were starting to regain some of the focus of the opening minutes, Shaun Fensom was downed by what seemed like a fairly mild tackle, but which the replay showed had involved Blake inadvertently dragging his hand across Fensom’s face. You had to assume that he had an eye or nose issue, and while he may have returned to the field almost immediately, the momentary possibility of yet another injured player seemed to spook the Cowboys a bit, and empower the Panthers a bit more, with North Queensland coming up with an error in the play-the-ball shortly after, providing Penrith with more of a platform to commence their attack.
While they may not have made it over on this set, the mountain men certainly used this set to consolidate, meaning that when they did cross over, it was as a statement of purpose, and a piece of pure Penrith spectacle. The try came towards the end of the tackle count, and on the back of some swift, sweeping ball movement by the Panthers from their right wing to their left. The pivotal pass was a harbour bridge move from Moylan to get the Steeden all the way out to Josh Mansour, and while the ball may have bounced on the way, Mansour cleaned it up as efficiently and economically as if it had landed straight on his chest.
In one of the best strategic decisions of the game, Mansour now chose to run the ball back to where it came from, busting through a tackle from the North Queensland no. 2 and taking the defence by surprise to such an extent that he was able to simply coast through Shaun Fensom and Scott Bolton and slam the Steeden to ground just beyond the posts. Catching the ball on the wing, but grounding it right beneath the posts, Mansour’s dexterity was a critical rallying-point for the Panthers at this point in the match, and with Nathan Cleary adding the extras as reliably as ever this suddenly felt like the Panthers’ game, as Pepper Stadium really came alive for the first time in the night.
The Cowboys didn’t take long to respond, however, getting their own try beneath the posts shortly after, off the back of a combination of Michael Morgan and Jake Granville that felt more like a mathematical proof than a footy move. Picking up the ball a couple of metres out from the line, Granville ran and dummied to the right, catching Edwards out of position, only to boot the back in the opposite direction, across his body, towards the inside of the field.
There, it ricocheted off the right post and stood up for Morgan, who had run a hard line to catch it on the chest before slamming it to ground. If Mansour’s try had confounded the defence with its rapid shift in direction, then Granville and Morgan’s effort was like a more condensed and concentrated verson of that try – a sudden shift in focus as much as anything else – and with Lowe adding the extras this time around the Cowboys headed into the sheds with a 6-10 lead over the mountain men.
Before that happened, however, North Queensland got another blow after Morgan was felled by a massive tackle from DWZ two minutes out from the siren. Burrowing into the tackle, Morgan went low, resulting in a massive head-on collision with the big winger’s shoulder that initially looked as if it might be a broken jaw, but then turned out to be an HIA situation. It was a long, tentative walk off the field for Morgan, and things got worse after half time, when the Cowboys learned that their key player had failed his HIA, forcing them to reconfigure themselves once again.
It was all the more cathartic for the North Queensland side, then, when they crossed over following the break, off the back of a Penrith error. To be fair, the Cowboys were probably pretty luck with this call, which came at the back of a terrific piece of play from the Panthers in which Cleary opted for a near-vertical bomb and Moylan – in yet another fifth-tackle save – popped it back for Peachey to storm up the left side, only for the referees to call Moylan offside and cancel the play. If Moylan had been offside, it was by a hair’s-breadth, but nevertheless that was the call, and the Cowboys built upon it quickly, with a line break from John Asiata and no-look pass sending Jason Taumalolo beneath the posts, with only Edwards making some show at preventing the big frontrower getting across.
From there, it was inevitable that Lowe would add the extras, as the Cowboys made their lead just that little bit more secure. Still, the Panthers responded spectacularly a couple of minutes later, with Cleary demonstrating just how elegantly he can wrest order out of chaos at at the end of a Penrith set that started out well, but started to deterioriate and grow more chaotic in its later tackles, culminating with a clutch grubber from Peachey that skidded off an oblique angle thanks to some massive pressure from Taumalolo.
Reading the play perfectly, Cleary dashed up to meet the ball, waiting, patiently, for the bobble to dissipate before placing it to ground just over the line, in a piece of timing so perfectly-pitched that initially it felt as if there had to be some catch, or as if Cleary himself had to have been offside, or facilitated by an obstruction somewhere in the backplay. None of that turned out to be the case, however, and the young halfback was awarded the four-pointer, in yet another example of how brilliantly he can insert himself into any position and command any situation in these kinds of clutch situations.
If his try was impressive, then his trysaving tackle a few minutes later was even more prodigious, as he held up Coen Hess – one of the hardest players to stop in the Cowboys squad – with a tackle that last a good ten seconds, and saw Cleary twisting his body in every possible direction to prevent the North Queensland enforcer from getting to the turf. Actually, the footage suggested that Hess may just have made it, but with an on-field ruling of try, and Matt Ceccin standing right above the play, the Bunker concurred. In any case, it was by no means clear that the ball had hit the turf, with Cleary having managed to keep a couple of fingers beneath it all times, in a show of strength that felt more attuned to a frontrower than one of the leanest and most wiry halves in the competition.
Buoyed up by that David and Goliath effort, the Panthers consolidated even further over the next couple of minutes, although it was Goliath who crashed over this time, with James Tamou smashing through the Cowboys defence from short range off the back of a terrific run from Edwards. Earlier in the year, the young fullback had really impressed fans and commentators with his terrific kick returns, and he showed something of the same speed and strength here, taking a leaf out of Cleary’s book to fend off Hess, skip over Granville and elude Coote to get right up to the line, where Wallace got the Steeden to Tamou on the next tackle.
It didn’t help the Cowboys, either, that they’d had yet another injury scare in the leadup to the play, with Coote now taking his turn to hit the turf with what initially looked to be an unpleasant knee injury. Like Fensom before him, he rejoined the field, but with Morgan and O’Neill having been taken off for the evening – and probably, in O’Neill’s case, for the season – it was almost inevitable that yet another stoppage of this kind would put a bit of a dent in the Cowboys’ momentum
Although North Queensland were only two points behind, these last twenty minutes had been all Panthers, with the result than Penrith felt as if they’d coasted far ahead ages ago, and were even beyond being beaten despite the small win margin. The fact that the Cowboys’ big men were clearly exhausted played a part too, and when Penrith got a repeat set at the sixty-ninth minute it looked as if this must be the point at which they would put down the winning try.
No doubt, too, it was one of their best sets of the game, with the mountain men almost crashing over in the left wing before Peachey busted out of three tackles up through the ruck and Moylan almost pulled off a twist-and-spin, with everyone suddenly taking their cues from Cleary and trying to play every position at once. Unfortunately, that culminated with a grubber from Reagan Campbell-Gillard that went too far and skidded across the dead ball line, but a set later Cleary showed the rest of the team how it was done, after Tyrone May broke through the line and fended off Asiata, before dodging around Bolton and Taumalolo in turn.
From there, May was always going to get the Steeden across to Cleary, and Cleary was always going to score, as well as add the extras to his own four-pointer. While there may have been four minutes left on the clock, this was the summative spectacle – Cleary resplendent, the Penrith halves resplendent, and the Penrith team as a whole suddenly realising that they had made it back to where they were in the buildup to finals footy last year; a spectacle that was all the more impressive for the dogged bravery the Cowboys had shown with so many challenges to their team structure and spirit over the course of the night.