After losing by twenty points to the Warriors the week before, the Panthers were pretty lucky to come away with a win over Melbourne for the last week of the regular footy season, even if the Storm had only managed a two-point margin over Gold Coast the week before as well. So messy was the Panthers’ discipline that they probably would have lost if Melbourne had been missing Billy Slater, Cameron Munster, Brodie Croft, Suliasi Vunivalu and Will Chambers, whose absence helped Penrith to orchestrate yet another last-minute try as they sailed into the finals.
That said, the Storm were the first to score, as Cameron Smith chose safety first and kicked for goal following an opening pair of penalties from the visitors – an obstruction from Sione Katoa, and then a slow peel from James Maloney. Just before the game started, there had been a massive downpour at AAMI, and the slipperiness of the football may have played a role in a poor backwards pass from Melbourne about eight minutes in. With Tyrone Peachey called offside, the Storm were let off the hook, but they couldn’t make the most of it, with Christian Welch losing the Steeden, in turn, on the first tackle.
Things just got messier from there, as an incorrect play-the-ball from Josh Mansour a tackle later gave the home team another shot at the line, before Dallin Watene Zelezniak put down the football, and an incorrect play-the-ball from Cheyse Blair ensured that Melbourne got a crack at the penalty count as well. As it turned out, however, Blair’s error was the most decisive so far, providing Penrith with the platform for Waqa Blake to almost crash over on the left edge four tackles later.
Sensing that Blake’s momentum was too good to waste, Josh Mansour collected the footy quickly and didn’t even make an attempt to pretend he was going to send it back inside. Instead, the Penrith winger put his head down and burrowed his way through both Josh Ado-Carr and Curtis Scott, with Jahrome Hughes slamming onto the tackle too late to make a difference. It was one of the toughest, gutsiest twist-and-spins of the year – from a winger, no less – and marked Mansour’s third successive try at AAMI Park.
While Nathan Cleary’s kick might have bounced off the uprights, the stats were on Penrith’s side, since the mountain men have won nine from nine whenever they have put down the first four points in 2018. For a moment, they seemed set to coast on their momentum, and clean up their error-laden game, with Scott Drinkwater only just managing to contain a 40/20 attempt from James Maloney on the restart.
Yet their luck changed abruptly when the slightest of professional fouls from Mansour on Justin Olam saw him sent to the bin for ten minutes. While Penrith might have defended valiantly on the subsequent Melbourne set, Peachey and Maloney gave away their seventh and eighth penalties the next time that the purple army had the football, resulting in a formal warning for Maloney.
For a moment, it looked as if this would result in Melbourne scoring in the most painful way for the visitors, as Olam collected the Steeden on the right corner at the end of this set. Despite being unmarked, however, he put a foot on the line while securing a possession, and so found his first try in the NRL once again eluding him as Viliame Kikau sped over, belatedly, to clean him up beyond the chalk. With Christian Crichton intercepting a pass from Ryley Jacks shortly after, the Panthers seemed to be building some discipline, but another lost ball from DWZ put that all to bed, setting the stage for the Storm’s first four-pointer of the night.
The spectacle of the Penrith captain coughing up the footy twice in one half clearly galvanised Melbourne, since both Hughes and Drinkwater came close to scoring over the next two tackles – Hughes with a barnstorming run that didn’t skittle the ruck so much as question whether it was even there, and Drinkwater with a big hit-up right on the line. It felt almost inevitable, then, when Felise Kaufusi collected the Steeden from Hughes and parted the defence, skipping past Isaah Yeo as Maloney over-read his line, in what was probably his most scattered first forty minutes of football this year.
To make matters worse, the try came just before Mansour was set to return to the park – he trotted out as Smith was lining up the conversion – evoking how plausibly the Panthers could have kept the Storm out with a twelve-man team if they’d just been able to manage a bit more discipline. After all, it was only a dropped ball from their fullback that had led to Melbourne scoring, and yet things continued to get worse for the Panthers, as James Tamou was now sent to the bin, seven minutes out from the end, and Smith booted through two more points to bring the Storm to ten.
Penrith were probably pretty lucky, then, to come away with only a four-point deficit once Cleary had kicked through his own penalty goal three minutes out from the siren – and even luckier when an outstanding Drinkwater try was called back just after the second stanza started due to some mistiming in the backplay. Still, given the way that the Panthers had been playing, the Storm seemed fairly confident of securing another minor premiership, meaning that the mountain men had to double down in the next forty minutes if they were going to have a shot at the win.
That’s just what they did, putting in an opening series of plays that seemed to consciously set out to reverse their blunders of the first half. First, it was DWZ, who made up for his two dropped balls with two terrific takes under the high ball in the opening minutes. It was the second that laid the platform for a pair of catch-and-passes from Maloney and Kikau that sent Blake into open space on the left edge, where he dared Drinkwater to hedge his bets on him, before sending the footy across to Mansour on his outside.
With only the smallest of margins to navigate, Sauce caught the football at speed and curved around to score, reversing the import of his sin bin in the most dramatic way possible. Once again, Cleary failed to add the extras – this time, the Steeden didn’t hook back as he would have liked – but with Blake almost breaking into space againon the second tackle of the next set, it was clear that the Panthers had recovered their mojo, and were determined to be the next to put down points.
So it was, too, with Maloney compensating for some of his earlier ill discipline a couple of sets later, when he put through a pitch-perfect crossfield kick that sailed above Ado-Carr’s head out on the left edge, and eluded Mansour’s touch, before bouncing into the in goal area. While Curtis Scott read the next play perfectly, he was too far away to prevent Mansour and Blake storming down the football, with Blake ultimately getting to it first and notching up four more points for the mountain men.
It was the second try in a row in which the Panthers had really managed to nail their left edge – and watching it in slow motion, you could almost think that Mansour had slowed down and allowed Blake to take to try, paying him back for the assist that had produced his own four-pointer a couple of minutes before. More than any other moment in the game, these back-to-back tries were the tipping-point for the Panthers, providing them with a consolidation they had been searching for ever since Mansour had put down the opening try at the twelfth minute.
The Storm had another weapon in their arsenal, however, with Dale Finucane having trotted off the field a couple of minutes earlier to make way for Ryan Hoffman. Even if the big Melbourne forward wasn’t still quite up to his regular standard, it was still a huge burst of adrenalin to see him take the field for his last assured home game at AAMI, putting a dent in the Penrith momentum that would prevent them scoring their next try for another ten minutes, when Blake would cross over for a double.
Mansour hadn’t stepped out of the spotlight by any means, however, showcasing some of his best defence of the night in a series of one-on-one encounters with Olam a couple of sets later. The sequence started with Sauce collecting the football as Olam tripped over him, before bouncing off Hughes to make a good twenty metres up the field. While Reagan Campbell-Gillard may have lost the footy a tackle later, some clutch defence from Mansour ensured that Olam was denied his third try in three weeks, with the replay showing he’d gone into touch and ground the ball simultaneously.
The Penrith left edge continued to shine for their next and most surprising try, which started with a kick from Maloney that bounced off Welch and was then kicked forward by Tyrone May. Sensing his opportunity, Cleary sped ahead, scooped up the footy and then booted it over to the left corner in a kind of condensed version of Maloney’s earlier crossfield kick. Sure enough, it found Blake, who beat Smith to match Mansour’s double with eight points of his own.
Two tries for Mansour and two tries for Blake would probably have been enough to get Penrith the game, but the icing on the cake was an intercept on Blair from Crichton to follow his earlier intercept on Jacks – his own personal double of the night. This time, Crichton ran two-thirds of the field to beat Melbourne at their own specialty with the one long-range try of the night. The intercept was arguably as spectacular as the putdown, as Crichton reached out an arm to disrupt the ball from its intended trajectory, before coming to ground and catching it in both hands as it sailed through the air.
To run two thirds of the field was impressive enough, but to get up from the ground and run two thirds of the field was even more impressive. By this stage, the Panthers felt unbeatable, in yet another of the second-stanza turnarounds that has made the back end of their 2018 season so exciting to watch. While Drinkwater might have sliced through the Penrith line four minutes out from the end, then it was too little too late, especially after four successive Panthers tries – a surge of momentum that Penrith they are going to be keen to take with them into the first week of finals footy.