The Panthers have put down the first shock win of the 2017 finals season, taking their revenge upon the Sea Eagles for more than doubling their score at Lottoland in Round 26. While Manly might have been strong favourites after that win, the proximity of the loss also made Penrith all the more determined, especially as they were strengthened by the return of Dylan Edwards at fullback. Mounting speculation around Matt Moylan’s future probably induced them to double down as well, with Anthony Griffin brushing off rumours before the game to reiterate how happy he was with his team’s organisation over the previous week.
The night got off to a slow start, with opening errors from the Trbojevic brothers providing a bit of a taste of what was to come. In the first minute Jake dropped the ball, while Tom knocked on a spiralling bomb from Nathan Cleary ten minutes later, in a rare display of vulnerability from the inheritors to Brett and Glenn Stewart’s Brookvale throne. Penrith seemed especially galvanised by Tom Turbo’s error, which lead to a period of sustained possession and escalating field position for the visitors.
Indeed, the very next set started with a terrific left step and twist-and-spin from James Tamou, following by a terrific grubber from Cleary – the first of many throughout the night – that gifted Penrith another set of six. Midway through the next tackle count they received another penalty, and with Apisai Koroisau knocking on a late offload from Trent Merrin the Panthers were gifted the scrum feed right in front of the posts. From here it seemed they had to score, and yet all their momentum evaporated with Tyrone Peachey knocking on a couple of tackles later.
With that shift in momentum, it was almost inevitable that the Sea Eagles should take control of the narrative for a bit, although it had been an impressive prologue for the Panthers, and a stunning example of what they could build off just one error from the Manly fullback. No surprise, then, when Dylan Walker crashed over for the first try of the evening a few minutes later.
It started with Matthew Wright intercepting a long pass from Edwards to Dallin Watene Zelezniak. Storming down the field, he eluded an ankle tap from Cleary and then spun around and out of a tackle from Bryce Cartwright before being brought to ground by a trysaving tackle from Tyrone May. Still, the Sea Eagles had built momentum, and a rapid play-the-ball saw them funnelling the Steeden across to Daly Cherry-Evans, who put in a deft kick for Walker to catch it on the full and then ground it in the right corner.
One of Walker’s real signatures as a tryscorer is his ability to place the ball to ground as casually as possible in clutch situations, and this was one of those moments, as he stepped up from the try as if he’d just sauntered over to the wing with all the time in the world, and then headed over to the Penrith bench for some cocky sparring with Merrin. With Wright unable to pull off a challenging conversion, the score remained 4-2, and yet Manly felt light years ahead at this point, with Walker’s swagger seeming to personify a team that felt destined to win if only they could retain this level of momentum.
The try was doubly disappointing for DWZ, since up until this point he had been one of the highlights of the Penrith backline, drawing on his positional shifts over the last couple of weeks to supplement Edwards’ return to the field by functioning as a second fullback. As fate would have it, however, the Sea Eagles would only score once more, and only then once the clock had reversed from twenty-six minutes to sixty-two, by which time most of this opening adrenalin would have subsided and the Panthers would have all but stolen the show.
The first moment of glory for the visitors came eight minutes later, when Cartwright put down the first of two tries that would bookend the game for the Panthers. It was a beautiful sequence to watch in slow motion, as Cleary grubbered the Steeden directly into the right post – it had to be intentional – calculating that it would ricochet off at exactly the correct angle to allow one of his bigger men to run through and get it to ground.
Sensing his halfback’s plan, Cartwright got in place, pivoting around the upright and ground the ball in the same dexterous movement. If Manly had opened with a long-range, grandly staged try, then the Panthers had now shown that they could retain the lead with small-scale, tightly-focused play, and with Cleary effortlessly adding the extras they headed into the sheds with a bit more of the confidence and vision that they had exuded at the beginning of the evening.
Things moved a bit more slowly at the beginning of the second half, with over twenty minutes passing before either side managed to cross over. A significant shift came seventeen minutes in, with what initially looked to be the second Manly try, after Frank Winterstein outdid DWZ under the high ball and knocked the Steeden backwards, giving his halfback space to scoop it up. Thinking quickly , DCE realised he had nowhere to run with four Panthers converging on him, and so opted for a skittering grubber under the posts that curved around and disarmed the opposition every bit as dexterously as his best high balls.
At first, Tamou was on it, but the ball eluded him, and with Akuila Uate slamming up from the other end of the field to get it to ground this appeared to be the turning-point at which the Sea Eagles would stamp their signature on the game and regain their dominance of the previous week. Lucky for the Panthers, then, that the referees didn’t immediately rule it a try, since the Bunker replay showed that Uate had lost the ball at the very moment of grounding it, with the Steeden sliding down his wrist moments before he could get it down.
Still, Manly didn’t have to wait too long for some joy, with Lewis Brown crashing over five minutes later for the second and last Sea Eagles try of the night – and a try that was especially galvanising for the Brookvale faithful, for at least three reasons. First, it came off a brilliant deception play, with the Sea Eagles converging on the left edge only to rapidly sweep the Steeden back across to the right through Jake Trbojevic and Blake Green, taking the Panthers utterly by surprise and opening up enough space for Brown to crash over.
Given the mind games that the Panthers’ opening performance had played with the hosts, that kind of stealth move must have been important in making Manly feel as if they could still take some ownership of the game. On top of that, the try was cathartic for how rapidly it followed upon Uate’s almost-try, and how quickly it made up for the disappointment – and the shock – of seeing Uate fumble a put-down, since the ex-Knight typically has some of the safest hands in the business.
Finally, seeing Brown put down points must have given the team a bit more confidence after the dispiriting spectacle of witnessing Curtis Sironen taken off with a hamstring complaint in the opening minutes of the second stanza, as the big second rower’s night seemed to be over before he’d had much of a chance to make up for his nine week absence nursing his pectoral tear. As a result, this was the critical try for Manly during the game – perhaps during their whole finals push – not least because it finally levelled the scoreline at 10-10.
Of course, that just made the Penrith all the more spectacular, especially because it involved a pair of tries that occurred so late in the game. The first of these came from Peachey, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this will probably become the most controversial and contested try of the entire finals season, although I personally couldn’t see how the Bunker could have called it any other way, given the on field ruling.
It started with Tom Trbojevic trying to let one of Cleary’s grubbers bounce beyond the dead ball line, only to skid to earth and find himself forced to kick it forward at the very last instant, gifting the Panthers a goal line dropout and Cleary the opportunity for his first field goal in the NRL. As it turned out, however, he didn’t need to opt for one point, with Peachey being awarded a try on the following set, after a grubber from Cartwright ricocheted off DCE and hit the Penrith centre on the chest.
What happened during those couple of seconds was a matter of interpretation – some people saw that the Steeden had bounced of the pectoral muscle and then the knee of Peachey, while others saw that the ball had come off his hand. Only Peachey knew what had happened – or, then, again, maybe he didn’t, since the play occurred so rapidly that he may not have even had any clear sense himself of what had taken place. I personally thought that the Bunker made the right call, since with an on field call of try and no absolutely watertight confirmation of a knock-on there was no choice but to respect the referees’ decision.
Despite the controversy – or because of it – this was one of those moments that makes rugby league so great, since the endless speculation, interpretation and disagreement will surely last beyond this finals season, along with that fleeting footage of the Steeden rocketing towards Peachey’s hands, as compelling in its own way as the blind spots in a true crime narrative. One of the hardest things to gauge in Bunker footage is where one plane of space ends and the next begins, and that was very much the case here, with some angles seeming to suggest Peachey’s hands and the Steeden had occupied the same plane, and other suggesting that they had occupied parallel planes.
In any case, the Panthers didn’t have much time to think about the decision, since they had to focus all their attention upon keeping the Sea Eagles out during the last six minutes, even if they were clearly buoyed up by seeing Peachey make good in his battle against Walker over the course of the evening. They sealed the deal when Cartwright crossed over again, off after Uate knocked on one of Cleary’s grubbers at the very worst moment in the game, and thereby compounded his earlier handling error with one of his most uncharacteristic matches of the year.
A couple of seconds later Carty scored the winning try, following a terrific run to the right side and a succession of fends on Green, Kelly and Wright that saw him bounce back over to the left to catapult through a courageous follow-up ankle tap from Green – a clutch play if ever there was one – and slam the Steeden over the line. It was the perfect was for the Panthers to continue to the next , not just because they had generated errors from some of Manly’s most reliable players, but because Cartwright’s comparative quietness over the second half of 2017 made it particularly rousing to see him bookend such a crucial win.
While the first weekend of finals footy was in for an even more unexpected outcome from North Queensland, this surprise victory felt pretty hard to beat, as Cleary slotted the ball through the posts right on the siren, for a 22-10 lead over a team that had more than doubled their scoreline the week before. Cartwright’s try also did the mountain men the favour of putting any petulance about the veracity of Peachey’s penultimate try to rest as well, since with a twelve-point lead it didn’t really make sense for the Sea Eagles to complain about a bad call.
Like the Cowboys game the following day, too, it was really affirming for Penrith to see their team bring home such a critical win without a key player, and probably did more than anything else to put the rumours around Moylan to rest. From this point on, the sky is the limit for the Panthers, and between them and North Queensland it is going to be fascinating to see how these two underdog outfits compete with finals footy over the next couple of weeks.