Sunday’s game between the Raiders and the Panthers at GIO Stadium was one of the most exciting fixtures in Round 24, and a terrific grudge match for both sides. Last year Canberra ended Penrith’s finals hopes at GIO, and there was word in the sheds that the mountain men were hoping to return the favour in 2017. At the same time, the green machine were probably still pretty dirty about the Panthers’ shock comeback in Bathurst in Round 14, and keen to regain some pride on home turf in the lead up to finals footy.
For most of the game it could have gone either way, although there were a few indicators early on that this would be Penrith’s afternoon. In particular, this was a watershed game for Dylan Edwards at fullback, and yet another argument for the reconfigured spine that has propelled Penrith in the second half of the 2017 season. Twice in the first half he caught the Steeden on the full and accelerated immediately, making it to the 40 metre line in the first case and the halfway line in the second case.
Even better, Edwards managed to shut down a 40/20 kick from Josh Hodgson half an hour in, just as it was on the verge of skidding into touch, pivoting on the edge of the line with as much dexterity as any winger in the game. Once again, he accelerated as soon as he recovered the ball, making it clear why he’s managed to rack up more metres than any other no. 1 in the competition by this late stage in the season.
The Panthers were also the first to put down points, thanks to a terrific pair of passes from Moylan and Edwards, who were so rapid getting a hand to the ball that it was really more like watching a series of bounces than a series of passes, with the two players applying just enough pressure to keep the Steeden airborne and set up Waqa Blake to crash over. It was a sombre moment for the Canberra crowd, especially since Penrith had only gained possession in the first place off the back of an opening error from Joseph Tapine.
Ten minutes in Penrith put down two points, but the build up made it feel more like four. It started with a terrific around-the-corner pass from Moylan to James Tamou, who sent it on to Tyrone Peachey for some much-needed field position midway through a set that initially appeared to be in danger of being trapped down Canberra’s end of the field. From there, a pitch-perfect kick from Nathan Cleary saw Jake Cotric fumble the high ball, gifting the Panthers the scrum.
On the fifth tackle, Blake Austin came up with an error, providing Penrith with another set, only for them to decide to take the two. While Cleary’s boot may have made an eight point lead a foregone conclusion, I could only assume the visitors were thinking of their forwards, since it seemed more than likely that they would crash over on the following set, so much momentum had they manage to generate on the last two. Even if they hadn’t put down points, they would have succeeded in utterly exhausting the Raiders’ big men, and so it was probably a let-off for Canberra, all things considered, that they settled for a kick.
Still, it was clear that the Raiders had to deliver something special, so it was relieving when Cotric put down their first try fifteen minutes in, at the end of an especially scintillating set that included a brutal run from Josh Papalii over Cleary and a deft harbour bridge pass from Jack Wighton. Given how sublime Cleary had already been it must have been great for the Canberra faithful to see their own rookie of the year making good on his mistake so quickly, and yet the young Penrith halfback would respond in kind a mere ten minutes later.
If Cotric had put the finishing touches on a terrific piece of Canberra play, then this next set piece both ended and started with Cleary, who passed across for Blake to speed up the right edge and break through the Raiders’ line with a deft left hand fend on Jarrod Croker. From there, Blake dummied to Dallin Watene-Zelezniak who was moving up behind him on the wing, only to lob it inside to Cleary, who accelerated to plant the ball beneath the post and then seamlessly converted his own try a couple of seconds later.
It was the beginning of a fantastic neck-and-neck contest, with Josh Papalii crashing over nine minutes later thanks to a terrific offload from Dave Taylor, who ran at the line, was taken down by three Panthers, and seemed to have arrived at the end of the tackle, only to pop the ball back just as he was hitting the turf. Scooping it up, Papalii managed to retain possession despite some quick thinking from DWZ, slamming the Steeden to ground right in front of Taylor, who’d barely emerged from the tackle that set it all up in the first place.
As often occurs in such a closely contested game, there were several momentum shifts towards the end of the first stanza, and Josh Mansour’s try one minute out from the break may have been what provided the Panthers with the surge needed to eventually win the gain. Again, this was a bookended effort, with Edwards almost knocking on the high ball but managing to get it onto Mansour, who broke through the Canberra line to run half the length of the field, and might well have made it to the posts if he hadn’t slipped along the way.
The ball then changed hands a few times, but eventually found Mansour, who once again slammed through the Canberra defence at close range, planting the Steeden over the line with Blake Austin on his back, while managing to keep his arm sufficiently raised to prevent any risk of a double movement. In its own way, it was as rousing as Mansour’s iconic try against the Bulldogs during the Preliminary Finals last year, and yet another reminder of how crucial he is to the Penrith spirit.
The Raiders weren’t done yet, however, with Jack Wighton taking control of the second stanza five minutes in. Catching the ball from Hodgson over on the right side of the field, the big fullback set himself up as if to pass to his outside man, only to temporarily don the no. 5 jersey himself and crash over after realising that the Panthers had targeted Jordan Rapana as the player most likely to put down points. It was a good read, and with Jarrod Croker managing a difficult sideline conversion, Canberra once again appeared to be back in the game.
That momentum provided Tapine with the push he needed to make up for his opening error ten minutes later, while Wighton continued his try high to help his second rower get there. Taking a leaf out of Edwards’ book, the Canberra fullback scooped up the Steeden right on the Penrith try line and once again showcased his dexterity on the wing as he scooted down the left side, before James Tamou and Reagan Campbell-Gillard got him to ground halfway down the field.
From that vantage point the Raiders could almost have made a run for the right wing, but they received a penalty, and on the back of it Tapine went over, thanks in part to a deft long pass from Hodgson followed by a tight short pass from Aidan Sezer, who tempted Moylan in from his line and cleared enough space for the lithe second-rower to plough through. It must have been a cathartic moment for Tapine after his opening fumble, and with Croker adding the extras the Raiders found themselves in front for the first time that afternoon.
For the next twenty minutes it was a two-point game, as it gradually became clear that the next team to score – if there was indeed another try – would likely turn out to be the winners. It was a magnificent moment, then, when Tyrone May put down points six minutes out from the end for his third try in only five NRL games, not least because it culminated about seven minutes in which the Panthers had enjoyed roughly ninety percent of the ball, with one penalty and restart after another bringing them closer and closer to the win.
In fact, May had crashed over a couple of tackles earlier, only to be held up by Junior Paulo and a pack of other Canberra defenders right beneath the posts. For his second effort he went over a couple of metres to the left, with a dummy and run that saw him slicing and edging his way through the Raiders defence at just the right angle and sticking out a hand from a maelstrom of lime green jerseys to calmly plant the ball to ground. Full credit has to go to Trent Merrin as well, whose offload right on the try line set up the second phase play needed to get May in position in the first place.
Still, the game wasn’t over, and the seventy-ninth minute offered about as tense an ending to a game as you might imagine, with the Raiders launching a high ball as the final seconds counted down. As if in slow motion, Rapana leapt in the air for a pinpoint catch, and almost offloaded to Taylor only for Mansour to slam in and bring him to ground, scooping up the Steeden after his marked man coughed it up.
So volatile was the conclusion that a fracas almost broke out after the final siren, but things quickly calmed down as the Raiders accepted the end of their 2017 season with dignity. For Canberra, it’s back to the drawing-board, while the Panthers are going to be keen to capitalise upon their win when they take on a Sea Eagles outfit humbled by the Bulldogs and Wests Tigers over the last fortnight, in what is shaping up to be one of the most interesting matches of the second last week of the regular footy season.