The Dogs were hungry for points when they met the Panthers at Penrith Stadium on Friday night after being held to zero by the Roosters the week before, while the mountain men were just as keen to make up for their last-minute loss to the Sharks in their first match since the Maloney-Moylan trade. No surprise, then, that this was one of the most visceral and physical matches of Round 8, as well as one of the most desperate games for Penrith all season, and arguably their hardest earned win so far.
The game started with two tryscoring opportunities for the Panthers, the first of which came when Maloney poked his nose through the line and got the ball across to Dylan Edwards, and the second of which saw Edwards himself on the verge of breaking the line, only for a massive tackle from Aaron Woods to bring him down just short of the chalk, dislocating his shoulder in the process. Even a great crossfield kick from Maloney to Dean Whare on the next set couldn’t compensate for the distress of seeing Edwards taken off after Josh Mansour’s injury the week before, especially given that Nathan Cleary had also suffered a similar fate at Woods’ hands.
With three of their biggest playmakers off the field, the Panthers were forced to reconfigure themselves more radically than any other team this season, and before they quite had a chance to get used to the new setup the Dogs took advantage of their disorientation, thanks to a perfectly timed sequence of passes from Michael Lichaa, Moses Mbye and, finally, Josh Jackson, to send Marcelo Montoya over on the right edge, with neither Whare nor Viliame Kikau able to prevent him scoring a try.
It was an effort that galvanised Canterbury over the next part of the game, as Penrith tried to come to terms with a radically different team from the start of the season, and Maloney’s first captaincy gig of his career took on even more symbolic significance in Edwards’ absence. A big effort from Will Hopoate to send Kikau into touch said it all, and while a forward pass from Jeremy Marshall-King on the first tackle of the next set made it all for naught, it was clear that the Dogs were prepared to bring everything in their arsenal to come away with a better scoreline this week.
The next points came on the back of some more Penrith clumsiness, after the Bulldogs dragged Jeremy Marshall-King back into touch on the first tackle, and Tyrone Peachey stripped the ball from the Panthers in the process, leaving it open for the Dogs to score once again only for the mountain men to scramble for a goal line dropout instead. Canterbury had all the momentum, though, and a couple of tackles later Hopoate simply sliced through the defence, as the line speed that had taken Penrith by surprise the first time around paid dividends for the Bulldogs now.
With such a reconfigured spine it was clear that the Panthers needed a show of strength from their big men to get points on the board, and an offload from James Tamou to Reagan Campbell-Gillard a few minutes out from half time provided just that, latyng the foundation for a deft crossfield kick from Maloney that Montoya was forced to punch into touch. If DWZ had been on his wing instead of at fullback, he might have just beaten Whare to the Canterbury flyer, but it didn’t much matter, as Corey Harawira-Naera crossed over on the next set off a short ball from Isaah Yeo.
Coming so close to half time, and after a tryless opening stanza, this was just the surge that Penrith needed when they returned after the break, although the Dogs were similarly galvanised by having let one through at the last minute, as evinced in a terrific period for Canterbury after a knock-on from Tamou granted them possession, including an attacking set from the Panthers that felt more like a defensive set given the monstrous blue and white onslaught mounted against it.
It was Harawira-Naera who got things back on track for the hosts by making a massive effort to reach out a hand to get the footy back in play after initially seeming to have been monstered into touch by the Canterbury defenders. The Dogs might have tried to drag Peachey back over on the next tackle, but to no avail, and at the end of the set a tiny grubber from Maloney that initially seemed like a bit of a non-option paid dramatic dividends after Peachey got it across to Moses Leota, who took Raymond Faitala-Mariner utterly by surprise to plunge through the line and score.
It wasn’t just sheer strength but ball control that distinguished Leota’s effort, as the big prop did a marvelous effort of keeping a hand on the Steeden as it slid across the moist turf and over the line without committing to a double movement in the process. With Maloney booting through the extras the Panthers had finally caught up with the Dogs to level the scoreline at 14-14, setting the scene for one of the most visceral and brutal sequences in weeks – thirty minutes of football that outdid even Canterbury’s grueling second-stanza grind against the Chooks the week before.
At the same time, it was clear that the Panthers had wrested back the momentum, and Maloney consolidated with a terrific kick-chase ten minutes or so later, burning forward to force Mbye over the line to clear up one of his best boots of the night. All that Penrith needed was an error, and Woods provided it, coughing up the footy midway down the field, and conceding a changeover that ended with the ball moving through Maloney and Peachey before Yeo slammed over in the left corner, with both Montoya and Mbye taken by surprise as Penrith gained four more points.
It remained four, too, since Maloney hooked the subsequent kick away to the left, leaving Penrith only a try ahead in what looked to be a pretty suspenseful final ten minutes. A penalty goal at the seventy-second minutes gave the hosts a little more leeway, while a string of clumsy errors from the Dogs guaranteed them the game, in what was one of the more vulnerable ends this season from Canterbury, especially once David Klemmer was sinbinned four minutes out from the end following a heated encounter with Trent Merrin in the scrum that almost turned into a fracas.
The Dogs are going to have a big job on their hands, then, when they take on the Broncos for a Suncorp fixture in Round 9, since their morale has to be shot by the nature of their losses over the last two weeks. Meanwhile, the Panthers are going to need to continue to compensate for the absence of Cleary, Mansour and Edwards when they take on a Cowboys outfit desperate to make up for their loss to Canberra.