With such a stunning pair of comebacks behind them, it almost felt as if the Panthers were advantaged by lagging behind the Titans in the opening minutes of Saturday afternoon’s match on the Gold Coast. Following on from their 35-12 loss to the mountain men earlier in Round 6, the Titans were clearly determined to make the most of their home ground advantage in the opening minutes, while Ryan James continued to make up for his near Origin appearance with another Origin worthy performance.
James’ big moment this time came off the back of a penalty from Moses Leota for not being square at marker – an error that got the Titans down their end of the field, laying the platform for the big prop to crash through Viliame Kikau and Isaah Yeo right on the line, before stretching out an arm to slam the Steeden down. It was just the kind of gutsy short-range effort that James has made his own, and was a powerful opening statement of purpose for Gold Coast.
The Panthers didn’t take long to respond, however, with Dean Whare putting in a massive left foot step to break through the line and leave Brendan Elliott behind him. While Alex Brimson may have brought his run to an abrupt end, the momentum continued as Penrith shifted the footy over to their left edge, where Waqa Blake skipped over a couple of sky blue jerseys and effected his team’s second successive linebreak only to be held up just before he could get the ball to grass.
A bit of a messy period ensued for both sides, as Tyrone Peachey concluded the set with a kick towards the posts, only for Kane Elgey to collect it on the full. Twelve metres out from the line, a forward pass from Ash Taylor to Konrad Hurrell returned the ball to the visitors once again, and while they didn’t score, a bad kick from Taylor a couple of minutes later meant that the Titans were unable to gain any real headway.
While Gold Coast might have been in front, it was clear that the next part of the game would belong to whichever team could consolidate and focus, so the momentum shifted decisively in Penrith’s favour when they clocked up a beautifully orchestrated try a couple of minutes later. It started with a short ball from Reagan Campbell-Gillard to Nathan Cleary, who poked his nose through the line before sending the Steeden back to RCG to break through, providing the big prop with a platform for the best and hardest run of the afternoon so far.
From there, RCG made it up to the twenty before lobbing the footy back for what could been a bit of a messy pass if Peachey hadn’t stormed up to catch it on the first bounce, seamlessly continuing the momentum of the linebreak before sending the ball across to Blake, who collected it, shifted it to his left hand, and made his way to the left corner where he sailed through the air before landing ball first in the in goal area.
It felt like a foregone conclusion when Cleary sent a difficult conversion through the posts, not just because of his amazing kick record, but because the entire try had such a focus and precision to it that it felt inevitable that an additional two points would follow. While only a handful of players were involved, this not only felt like a team try, but a flashback to the stunning team tries that crystallised the end of the 2017 Panthers season – exactly the gesture of cohesion that Penrith needed to take control over what had been starting to turn into a scrappy game.
While the Panthers didn’t score again immediately, two errors dampened the Titans’ spirit, lending more and more of the momentum of the match to the visitors. First, Hurrell undid an incredible riposte to Blake’s try from Anthony Don, who broke through the line, danced around a tackle from Peachey and dodged Blake, before finally being brought to ground by a combined tackle from Blake and RCG. The Penrith defence were certainly disheveled enough for the Titans to score a try, but unfortunately Hurrell sent out a forward pass to mirror the one he’d copped from Taylor earlier in the game.
Ten minutes later, Nathan Peats seemed to have crossed over, only for Peachey to showcase some of the best clutch defence of the Panthers’ 2018 season, wrestling the footy from the Gold Coast hooker’s hands as he was in the process of grounding it. In one of the most complex combinations of hands and football in weeks, a plethora of Bunker angles showed that Peachey had indeed stripped the ball from Peats, but that Peats had then knocked it on in the process of trying to regather it.
Nevertheless, a pair of penalties and some verbal dissent from Jack Hetherington put a bit of a dent in the Penrith rhythm as the last ten minutes of the first half arrived. Shortly after, Hetherington was binned for a swinging arm, leaving the Titans to have a crack at another four points with twelve men to defend it. A Mitch Rein grubber initially looked to pay some dividends when it trapped Dallin Watene Zelezniak in goal, but in the biggest howler of the game Gold Coast had nobody to catch the dropout when it came, with a good three or four players caught napping on the left side.
The Titans got a few more chances over the next few minutes, but none of them came to much, culminating with a big hit-up from Whare on Elgey that spoke volumes of the Panthers’ efforts to band together and compensate for their big second rower’s absence. In fact, a late ball from Peachey to Maloney looked as if it might yield four more points from the mountain men before the siren, only for Jimmy to be cleaned up comprehensively by a flustered and frustrated Gold Coast defence.
In one of the scrappy showings that characterized the game as a whole, it was only after Penrith got thirteen men back that they conceded a try, thanks to a double decoy movement from the home team that saw Philip Sami score four more a mere three minutes into the second stanza. Yet those points didn’t focus the game so much as dishevel both sides further, as the Titans grew more desperate to make the most of their lead, and the Panthers struggled to catch up with them.
Things probably reached their nadir about fifteen minutes into this second stanza, when Trent Merrin lost the footy on the first tackle but had the good fortune for the refs to mistake it for a strip, only to put it down once again at the end of the tackle count. A couple of minutes later, Isaah Yeo almost mirrored James’ one-handed putdown, and then RCG slammed over beneath the posts, but a big Titans defensive effort held him up as Tyrone May trotted onto the field to inject some fresh energy into the Penrith attack.
The writing seemed to be on the wall for the Panthers by this point, though, and a tackle later Maloney sent a wide pass out to Blake that would have been a try assist if Don hadn’t scooped it up and made his way back down the other end of the field. This time, the big winger made it all the way, stealing a try from the Penrith backliner who’d combined with RCG to bring him down the first time he’d run the length of the park. A mammoth trysaving tackle from Elliott on DWZ a set later only consolidated the Titans’ ownership of the ground, making their ten point lead feel just that little more secure.
Still, a pair of penalties from Maloney and Blake, followed by a pair of errors from Sami and Arrow, spoke to the messiness of the game as a whole. As the minutes wound down, Kikau made it over the line, and actually claimed a try, only for the replay to show what had seemed fairly intuitive in real time anyway – that Don had kicked the ball forward before the big Penrith prop could get to it. In fact, Kikau’s call, and the replay, did him more harm than good, since it emerged that he’d knocked the footy on just before Don got to it with his boot, turning a goal line dropout into a fresh set of six for the Panthers.
The closing ten minutes of the game started off a bit like watching an alternate version of the Panthers’ last two matches in which the comeback came just a little too late, and the underwhelming opening was allowed to stretch just a little too long. The resurgence started with another brilliant linebreak from Whare, this time off the right foot, followed by a brutal fend on Elgey and a deft pass at high speed to Cleary, who converted his own try a moment later to bring the scoreline to 16-12.
Yet the great twist of the game was that the Panthers had simply left their comeback as late as possible, rather than neglecting it altogether. All of a sudden, Penrith consolidated much as they had for their opening try, as Blake broke through the line and offloaded to Whare, who bobbled before securing the footy and sending it across to DWZ to slam over the line for what initially seemed to be the match-winning try.
In an even more unbelievable twist, however, Cleary missed the conversion from right in front of the posts, sending the game into golden point. In five minutes, the most underwhelming match of Round 22 so far had turned into a spectacle that was every bit as momentous as that of the Cowboys’ win over the Broncos on Thursday night, and the Roosters’ win over the Bunnies the night before. The Panthers had left their comeback late enough to slip into golden point, and as both teams got ready for the next bout of footy the NRL ladder felt more fluid and precarious than ever.
Extra time started with Cleary having a shot at field goal, with a long-range effort that was every bit as ambitious and epic as Kyle Feldt’s penalty kick on the stroke of halftime on Thursday night. The young halfback was less successful, though, with the footy landing beneath the crossbars, although a long kick from Taylor at the end of the next set got the Panthers the seven tackles they needed to bring the game to a close.
The ball shifted from Maloney to Cleary, and for a moment it was unclear who was going to take the shot, but there was a poetic justice in Nathan adding the winning point after his frustrated conversion and field goal attempt. Penrith have now left their stunning trademark comeback as late in the game as it can occur, in what will surely come to be seen as a historic trio of wins, and a highlight of the 2018 NRL season.
The improbability of these three comebacks will also become a key part of Penrith’s sense of spirit and team cohesion in the build up to the finals. No doubt, the Titans deserved the win, but they deserved it so much that you have to credit the Panthers with actually coming away with the victory. What the mountain men need now is a solid eighty minutes, and a consistently superior performance, to cement the self-belief that has got them through the last three games, and they’ll be looking for that opportunity when they take on the Knights at Pepper next weekend.