Both the Tigers and the Panthers came into Thursday night’s game at Pepper Stadium with wins under their belt from the week before, for a family clash between Dallin and Malakai Watene Zelezniak, and Ivan and Nathan Cleary. Penrith probably had a bit more spark behind them, though, with Cleary returning for the first time since sustaining his knee injury against the Bulldogs earlier in the year. While the future New South Wales halfback might not have been quite back to his regular self – James Maloney took the first kick – his presence was still motivating enough to gather the mountain men into one of their most galvanising opening acts in weeks.
The match started with a pair of penalty goals, the first from the Tigers, and the second from the Panthers, after a succession of penalties from the hosts had seemed to shift the opening momentum in favour of the black and gold. Three times the visitors were piggy-backed out of their own end by a Penrith error, leading to a formal warning for the Panthers at the twelfth minute, although, in a perverse twist of refereeing, this warning worked to the hosts’ benefit, rather than deterring them.
In part, that was because the penalty occurred right at the brink of a renewed Tigers attack, allowing Maloney to stroll over to Ben Cummins to give his men some time to recover and reorganize their defensive line. On its own that wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary, but when the Panthers conceded a seventh penalty on the very next tackle, a mere thirty seconds later, and nothing happened, you had to wonder whether this warning had served any other purpose than to refresh the Penrith side.
To add insult to injury, it was the Panthers who racked up a penalty goal a set later, putting the score at 2-2, in a change of momentum that was enough to guarantee them the rest of the first stanza. While Trent Merrin was sinbinned around the twentieth minute, the gesture felt belated and a bit decontextualised, since Penrith should really have had a man off the field much earlier in the game, as much as Merrin himself seemed outraged to have been sent off at this particular moment.
The sum total of that displaced response to the sinbinning was to dishevel the Tigers, leading to Marshall coughing up the Steeden midway through the subsequent set, laying the platform for Cleary to grubber on the third tackle of the next set for the Panthers, sending through a ball that sat up beautifully for Tyrone Peachey to score the first try of the night. To put down their first four points moments after being reduced to twelve men was motivating enough for Penrith, but it was compounded by Cleary contributing the first try assist since returning to the game, paving the way for ten minutes in which the Tiges were unable to make the most of their extra man.
It was something of a triumph, then, when Merrin returned to the field – more like receiving a fourteenth player than restoring their thirteenth, so effectively had the Panthers been coping with losing one of their biggest men. From there, Penrith just consolidated further, thanks to a terrific take from Peachey that allowed him to gather up a fifth-tackle kick from Esan Marsters as if he’d been the intended recipient of his boot all along, setting the scene for the best Penrith set of the night.
This momentous sequence play involved not one, not two, but three linebreaks, the first of which came on the back of a looping cut-out pass from Cleary that saw Dean Whare break through the line for a run that almost looked set to result in points then and there. While he may have been cleaned up, James Tamou continued his momentum with a barnstorming barge that took him clean through the Tigers defence, and almost saw him shoulder his way for a second break before being contained, grudgingly, about twenty metres short of the line, looking for an offload.
Few props tend to pop out the footy as unexpectedly as the ex-Cowboy, so for a moment it looked as if he might have something up his sleeve here. As it turned out, he was brought to ground, but Maloney quickly made good on the team’s momentum, mirroring Cleary’s opening pass to Whare with an even wider ball out to Tyrone Phillips on the wing. The pass was a thing of beauty, recalling Suliasi Vunivalu’s thirty-metre cut-outball to Josh Ado-Carr against the Broncos in Round 7.
If the pass was spectacular, then the putdown was freaky, as Phillips caught the footy on his chest, saw that David Nofoaluma was coming in low for a tackle, and then simply jumped over the top of him, barely even touching him before landing, ball-first, and then tumbling into touch. No doubt, it was one of the best tries by a winger this year, and it just made things better that the previous sequence had been bookended by a pair of passes from Cleary and Maloney, in yet another tribute to the intuition and synergy that has clicked between them since the beginning of 2018.
So far, the Panthers have won each of the four matches this year in which they led at half time, so the Tigers started to get desperate as the half time siren approached. Their hearts were in their mouths when Cleary picked up a kick from Brooks and ran sixty metres, only to be called back for a knock-on, and that anxiety must have carried over to the second stanza, since it was now the visitors’ turn to rack up a series of escalating penalties, culminating in a second two-pointer for the Panthers.
That said, the mountain men weren’t able to put down another try for the first twenty minutes after returning from the break, with Christian Crichton coming close only for a well-timed tackle from MWZ to force him to lose the footy just as he was hurtling towards the turf. Still, a second penalty goal around the twentieth minute brought the Panthers to a comfortable fourteen point lead, as the Tigers were now forced to contend with a twelve-man team after Alex Twal was sent off to the bin.
If anything could be said for the Tigers it was that they really consolidated their defence over this second stanza, and that continued during this ten minute period as they brought everything to keep out one try after another. Moments after Twal left the field, Corey Thompson managed to ground the Steeden in the in-goal area before the Panthers could get to it, while Nofoaluma put in a sterling effort to force Phillips into touch just before the ex-Bulldog could notch up a double for Penrith.
Nofoaluma also showcased his defensive aptitude a couple of sets later, when he managed to clean up an unexpected grubber from Maloney on the second tackle just before Dallin Watene Zelezniak could ground it. With DWZ throwing the ball too hard for Whare during a tryscoring opportunity shortly after, the Tigers were in the clear, and had managed to keep the Panthers tryless in the second half even with a twelve man outfit on the field, a pretty impressive defensive achievement in itself.
Still, some of the most disturbing moments of the season for Tigers fans occurred during this passage of play as well, most notably in a horrible sequence in which the Panthers lost the ball on the left edge of the field and Benji Marshall gained possession of it before promptly losing it back to Penrith in turn, in a fumble that initially looked as if it might end up giving Phillips the platform for a double after all.
As the clock wound down, then, it became clear that the black and gold had nothing left to give, and that the best they could really hope for was to prevent the Panthers from scoring any more tries. To their credit, their managed to do just that, keeping Penrith tryless for the second forty minutes – tryless since the first half hour – and only losing by a pair of tries and couple of penalty kicks from a team that had been clearly raring to decimate them at every opportunity that they received in the game.
Nevertheless, the Tigers are going to have to do some massive soul-searching before they take on the Dogs at ANZ Stadium next weekend, since Canterbury-Bankstown are going to be keen to take advantage of this loss to consolidate their own momentum following their win over the Raiders last week. Meanwhile, the Panthers need to continue this extraordinary form, and Cleary needs to consolidate his case for the Blues, making next week’s match against the Dragons one of the most critical of their season so far, especially since not even a rousing win this week will be enough to satiate the Red V’s need for victory after their shock loss to the Bunnies.