ROUND 7: Penrith Panthers v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (Panthers Stadium, 26/4/19)

The Bunnies were coming off a close win and the Panthers off a close loss when they met at Panthers Stadium on Friday for the second night of football in ANZAC Round. Souths got rolling immediately, taking advantage of a opening penalty for Tim Grant to score on their very first attacking set, thanks to a superb pass from Cody Walker to Kyle Turner, who steamrolled through Nathan Cleary to score four points before the three minute mark had arrived.

It was a great moment for Turner. Not only was it his first try in two seasons, but it came while he was playing out of position – at left centre, instead of second row – while providing him with some catharsis after the questions raised around his form in 2018. Unfortunately, Adam Reynolds’ kicking game continues to raise questions, as the South Sydney halfback made the first of several unsuccessful conversion attempts over the course of the game, ricocheting the ball off the uprights to keep the score at 0-4.

With an offside penalty from Damien Cook, the Panthers were back up South Sydney’s end pretty quickly, where an early chip from Cleary got them a dropout after Walker was forced to take the ball into touch. While Isaah Yeoh might have dragged three defenders right to the line on the third tackle, Viliame Kikau lost the footy at the end of it all, resulting in a seven tackle set for South Sydney. Nevertheless, Penrith continued to apply pressure on the next set, when Malakai Watene Zelezniak broke through the right edge before a Cleary bomb defied Alex Johnston.

Luckily, Corey Allan was there to clean up the football, but Cleary had already started to outshine Reynolds with the boot, suggesting that the Panthers had some promising last tackle options up their sleeve if they could just manage to consolidate. They got their next chance with an escorts penalty from Dane Gagai, but the Queensland representative made up for his error by bookending the next set with heads-up plays, the first of which was a potential trysaver on the first tackle.

On the last, Gagai managed to overcome Waqa Blake in goal at the tail end of a James Maloney chip, getting his team another seven tackle set. Reynolds now followed MWZ by breaking through the line on the edge of the field, but he followed up with a fairly average kick that sat up perfectly for Caleb Aekins to start bringing it back. While Souths got the scrum feed at the end of the next Penrith set, they made their first handling error out of it – a fumble in the play-the-ball from Kyle Turner.

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Once again, however, the Panthers couldn’t consolidate, with a pair of kicks from Cleary and Kikau not quite coming together at the end of the set, despite the fact that they had forced Souths to camp out right on their line for virtually every tackle. The best kick from Reynolds now followed, a soaring bomb that Josh Mansour coughed up despite a relatively mild kick chase. For a moment, the Bunnies looked set for a dropout, only for James Fisher-Harris to be pinged for interference, giving Reynolds the chance to put the Bunnies a converted try ahead with the game’s first penalty goal.

A couple of minutes after, the Rabbitohs had their first interchange, as Liam Knight subbed off for Tevita Tatola. It seemed to breathe fresh energy into the team, resulting in their next tryscoring formation, and the best last tackle option from Reynolds so far, a two-part effort that started with a towering bomb that the Bunnies knocked back. From there, Reyno regathered the footy and shifted it across to Sam Burgess, who carried it right into the line before sending it over to Gagai in turn.

South Sydney now got their freakiest good luck of the season so far, as Gagai lobbed the ball out of a tackle to the right corner, where it somehow landed right on the chest of Allan, who simply had to keep running to cross over untouched. It was the kind of serendipitous moment that can give a team the self-belief they need to take control of the next part of the game. Still, Reynolds’ conversion attempt was a bummer, as the once-sharpshooter sent the footy across the front of the posts from the kind of sideline angle that he would have nailed over the last couple of years.

Five minutes out from the siren, James Fisher-Harris crashed over the line, for what would have been his third try of the year. He’s already the top tryscorer for the Panthers in 2019, so this would have been a galvanising moment for the home team if James Maloney hadn’t been pinged for playing the ball sideways in the leadup to Fish’s run. It was small consolation for the Panthers that Cleary got a penalty kick one second out from the siren after John Sutton was pinged for holding down.

That said, that were probably lucky, all things considered, to be only eight points behind at this stage. At the very least, it meant that they could treat the second stanza as a fresh start, since they only needed a pair of tries to reach the Bunnies on the scoreboard. They started to move in that direction pretty quickly, taking advantage of an error from Allan, and then a penalty from Burgess, to score on their first sustained attacking opportunity.

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While Mansour got two chances up the left edge, he didn’t push hard enough, forcing the Panthers to shift the footy across to the middle of the field as the tackle count proceeded. From there, it didn’t take them long to score, as Reagan Campbell-Gillard collected the Steeden, twist and spun into the defensive line, and drew in Cook, before popping the ball across to Maloney, who slammed over beneath the posts for the first four Penrith points.

Full credit has to go to Cook, who read the play quicker than any of his team mates, and managed to get to Maloney despite being the main casualty of RCG’s assist. Nevertheless, the Panthers had scored almost as early in the second stanza as the Bunnies had in the first, and with Cleary booting through the extras they were now only two points behind. Meanwhile, Sam Burgess was down the tunnel with an injury, and replaced by Mark Nicholls, as Penrith started flexing their muscles again.

They almost scored on the restart, as James Fisher-Harris surged at the line on the second tackle, barging his way through a big pack of defenders – Cook, Burgess, Lowe, Knight – only to be penalised for a second effort. While Tom Burgess might have lost the footy at the end of the next South Sydney set, this was still a big letoff for the home team, who started to consolidate over the next passage of play. They got an even bigger letoff ten minutes in, when the Panthers got the football back at the tail end of a soaring Cleary bomb.

The mountain men got rolling with a series of huge cut-out passes across to their left edge, only for South Sydney to force them back into the middle of the field. By the third tackle, Penrith had straightened their attack, with Cleary crossing over moments later, only for the try to be called back due to Moses Leota knocking the Steeden into John Sutton’s leg in the backplay. Souths now withstood one of the Panthers’ biggest defensive sets of the night, thanks to big runs from Nicholls and Lowe, while a near-linebreak from Leota on the next set came to nothing after Maloney was pinged for a dangerous tackle at the end of it.

The stars were aligned for the Bunnies to score – and Reynolds now stepped up, hooking his best last-tackle kick of the night back beneath the posts, where Walker followed up by forcing a dropout. They got two penalties immediately – a strip from JFH, a dangerous tackle from RCG – and chose to tap and go each time, a bet that paid off when Walker caught a harbor bridge pass from Murray on their left edge, before breaking through Cleary to slide over the chalk for another four points.

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This time Reynolds made the right-foot conversion to put six more points between South Sydney and Penrith, but the mountain men responded in kind soon after, thanks to a deft platform from Wayde Egan out of dummy half. Drifting across the face of the ruck, Maloney drove the ball into the right corner, where Dallin Watene Zelezniak defied Graham to put down his first try of 2019, and his first try in eleven games, reaching out his right hand to ground the ball dexterously behind his back.

Now it was Cleary’s turn to miss the conversion, allowing the Bunnies to retain a four point lead as the last ten minutes of the match drew near. That said, the Panthers now enjoyed their most sustained period of possession all night, thanks to a linebreak from Kikau and two successive dropouts, but they came to nothing when Egan was held up on the last tackle, and Tamou was pinged for a dangerous tackle on the next South Sydney set.

While Tamou’s effort seemed to cause some serious discomfort to Sam Burgess, this was still a bit of a harsh call on the ex-Cowboy. To add insult to injury, it led to the next scoring set for South Sydney, who actually lost the football halfway down the field, where Mansour had a chance to scoop it up and work his way back down to the Rabbitohs’ line, only to miss his opportunity, culminating a game that was way below his characteristic vision and energy.

Instead, Cook scooped up the footy, sending it to Reynolds who moved it on to Walker in turn. Having read the play several seconds in advance, Walker burned up the right edge before popping the Steeden back in to Gagai, who slammed over the line for four more points, setting up Reynolds for the easiest conversion of the night. For a moment, there was a brief question of an eight point try, leading to a fracas in goal, but six points was the correct result, as the Panthers got stuck to dig in.

Given their proclivity for last-minute comebacks, it wasn’t surprising that Kikau came up with the hardest run of the night so far, seeming to slam through the entire South Sydney defence to score from ten metres out. Yet while Cleary added the extras, the Panthers wouldn’t score again, thanks in part to a pair of errors from Blake and Maloney in the last five minutes. They’ll be looking for redemption, then, when they take on the Raiders next week in Wagga Wagga, while the Bunnies wil be keen for an even bigger win margin when they kick of Round 8 by hosting Brisbane at ANZ on Thursday night.

About Billy Stevenson (751 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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