ROUND 8: Canberra Raiders v. Penrith Panthers (McDonalds Park, 4/5/19)

The Panthers had suffered three losses in a row, against the Titans, Sharks and Rabbitohs, when they travelled to McDonalds Park for a Raiders home game in Wagga Wagga. Meanwhile, Canberra had missed 35 tackles against the Sea Eagles in Round 7, and were missing Joey Leilua, who was out with some shoulder and neck tightness, and forced to postpone his 200th game as Michael Oldfield trotted onto the park for his first match of the season. Nevertheless, the Raiders took advantage of the home crowd, controlling the game, and the kicking game in particular, to come away with a comfortable 30-12 win off four converted tries and three penalty goals.

Despite the final scoreline, the Panthers dominated much of the first part of the game, starting with a good opening kick from James Maloney on the third tackle that forced Charnze Nikoll-Klokstad to collect the ball right on the line, trapping Canberra in their own end for their first couple of tackles with footy in hand. Caleb Aekins then proved safe under Jack Wighton’s high ball, only for Wayde Egan to make the first mistake of the night a couple of plays later, gifting the Raiders an early bout of field position that ended with CNK coughing up the ball at the pivotal moment in a rapid left edge sweep.

Penrith now got the first penalty after Elliott Whitehead was pinged for working on the ground, as James Tamou and Tim Grant took big tackles right in front of the posts, and Grant made a hard run at the line on the fourth, before Egan kicked out of dummy half to secure the first dropout of the afternoon. Wighton sent the Steeden forty metres, but Waqa Blake was back within the twenty by the second tackle, setting up Josh Mansour to slam over a play later, but not without knocking on right on the line, in a critical early momentum-killer for the away team.

For a moment, the Panthers looked to have recouped their losses with their best defensive set of the match so far, culminating with a high ball from Wighton that Malakai Watene Zelezniak managed to clean up while staring straight into the sun. Yet James Fisher-Harris now made the biggest brainsnap of the first half, putting undue pressure on Wighton at the kick, instead of relying on the steady acceleration and accumulation of field position that had served Penrith so well over the opening minutes of the match. They should have scored on their next set, but instead Oldfield put down the first points in Wagga, off a superb kick from Sam Williams.

With Croker adding the extras from a tricky sideline angle, the Raiders were six ahead, and had to prove on their next set that they didn’t need a Penrith error to shine. Josh Papalii took the first hit-up on the restart, and John Bateman followed with some significant contact metres, but not without seeming to strain his arm while trying to break away from Maloney, producing a brief pause that undercut some of the Raiders’ rhythm. While Williams managed a tricky bounce off the boot at the end of the set, Aekins made another good take, before Dunamis Lui was penalised for lying in the ruck, and the Panthers got going once again.

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Nathan Cleary now had one of his lower moments of the game, shooting out an ill-timed pass that bounced off Dallin Watene Zelezniak’s boots instead of finding him on the chest, forcing DWZ to become the main playmaker a set later as he brought the footy back across the front of the ruck to try and consolidate Penrith’s field position. Still, the Panthers had started to dissociate during this set, which ended with an overlong kick from Maloney that got Canberra seven tackles, after Cleary came within a hair’s-breadth of grounding his five-eighth’s ball in goal before being bundled into touch by a determined kick chase from the home team.

Once again, Bateman took the brunt of the Panthers’ energy, losing the ball on the first tackle under some big pressure from James Tamou and Viliame Kikau. Yet Papalii now responded with the biggest hit of the game, slamming Cleary to ground as he was dummying on the right edge, before a Maloney kick trapped CNK in goal for the second Penrith dropout, once Blake had jumped just a little too soon to cleanly collect the football. The Panthers now had to score or else concede the momentum to Canberra once again, so it was agonising for the home crowd when Mansour knocked on at the end of a rapid sweep to the left wing.

To be fair, Mansour had received a Hail Mary pass, and there was a low chance of him collecting the football cleanly, which perhaps made this error less egregious than his earlier knock-on. Yet Mansour is also supposed to be more at home on the wing than in the centre of the park, which is where he made his previous mistake, while his history of magical moments on the wing – at his peak – made this cough-up more troubling than his earlier mistake, especially as it was an unforced error. Penrith needed a big individual effort now, and Blake and Cleary provided it with a pair of sublime linebreaks on the next set that seemed destined to produce points.

The Panthers’ chances looked even better when the Raiders responded with two successive slow peels – the first from Lui, and the second from CNK, who was sent to the bin as Reagan Campbell-Gillard subbed on for Tim Grant. Cleary lost the ball on the right edge, but Penrith got another bout of field position when Whitehead was pinged for being offside. Cleary now compensated for his handling error with a stunning run at the line on the first tackle, while Whitehead compensated for his offside penalty with an epic trysaver to prevent Isaah Yeoh from crashing over beneath the posts on the third play.

Yeoh was now taken off the field, forcing Liam Martin on earlier than expected – another pause in play that this time sapped the Panthers’ energy, bringing their accumulated possession and field position to an abrupt halt with an escorts penalty from RCG in his first major play of the afternoon. With a twelve man defence, this was the worst possible result for the Panthers, and a second error from RCG set the scene for the next Canberra try, which occurred three minutes before CNK returned, and with John Bateman also off the park (replaced by Hudson Young) for an HIA.

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This was the simplest try of the night, as Wighton crashed over on the left edge on the back of a superb string of passes, but its simplicity spoke volumes, steeling the Raiders to a new level of determination as they once again scored with an additional player on the field, and without Bateman, Leilua and Rapana as key playmakers on the park. With Jarrod Croker adding the second conversion, and booting through a penalty goal five minutes out from the siren, Canberra had kept the Panthers to zero when they headed to the sheds, while also getting beyond a two converted try lead.

When they returned, the stage was set for one of the stellar comebacks that distinguished the back end of Penrith’s 2018 season. With eight errors, and only eleven sets completed out of nineteen, the Panthers had to grind in immediately, especially since the Raiders now had the wind at their backs, making them confident enough to start with an early kick. Maloney made a good statement by cleaning up Whitehead while he was trying to offload, while Aekins proved to be reliable under the high ball as he was in the first stanza. Yet CNK was also comfortable under the best floating bomb of the game from Cleary, as both teams settled into a groove.

For a while, they went set for set, until CNK successfully contested Maloney for the high ball. This was a strong sign that the Raiders still had the upper edge, especially since Maloney had made the kick, and was the sole chaser from ten metres out. Hodgson tried to consolidate on the next set with his second successive 40/20 effort, but Aekins managed to collect the footy right on the sideline. At the end of their next set, the Panthers recovered the ball, and accelerated to their left edge, only for Soliola to save a try, cementing the game further in the Raiders’ direction, even if Soliola’s offside penalty cost CNK a major linebreak a minute later.

This was a good moment for Penrith to capitalise, shift the shape of the game and start executing one of their second stanza comebacks, especially when they got a further burst of field position after Hudson Young was pinged for not being square at marker. They took a brief step backwards when Kikau and RCG were both wrapped up by a strong pack defence on the Raiders’ right edge, but it all came together on the last play, when Egan kicked to the left, and Maloney scooped it up and shifted it across to Cleary, who danced over Sezer and sliced through Whitehead to put down the first four points for Penrith.

All afternoon, the Penrith spine had been on the verge of synergizing, so this was a rousing way for them to commence their comeback. Seeing Cleary come to ground just short of the chalk, but rely on his momentum – and the momentum of Whitehead’s tackle – was a concise summary of this potential turning-point of the match, which marked the first sequence where the Panthers had managed to capitalise on the rhythm when it was rolling in their direction. No surprise either that Cleary added the extras from right beside the points, narrowing the scoreline to eight points as the last half hour of the match got underway.

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Despite this surge of adrenalin, Moses Leota lost the footy on the first play, giving the Raiders a chance to bounce back immediately. Soliola now almost sent Sutton over the line on the third tackle, before asking an even bigger question of the Penrith defence on the left side of the park. Between Soliola’s near-assist and Soliola’s near-try, the Raiders seemed to be escalating to a damaging left sweep, so it was a big letoff for the away team when Young was pinged for an obstruction on the very next tackle. Yet Penrith got an even bigger blow soon after, when Kikau was taken off the field after a collision with Whitehead right on the Canberra line.

Losing Kikau put a major dent in the Panthers’ game play, especially since he’d already taken and made a couple of monster tackles in this particular match. Accordingly, Penrith’s luck seemed to go downhill from here, with Liam Martin making an error, and Maloney making a dangerous tackle, all in the next sixty seconds. To make matters even worse, Martin would have ensured back-to-back Penrith tries if he’d managed to catch Cleary’s kick on the full – or if the refs had decided that Oldfield’s role in the play had been enough to guarantee the penalty try that the Penrith players were clamouring them to award.

The Panthers were now starting to panic, as Maloney’s dangerous tackle, which landed Hodgson on his head, almost spilled out into a full-on fracas, and resulted in both Maloney and Martin being put on report. This seemed to galvanise the Raiders, fueling Nick Cotric to break through the line and almost score, before CNK followed up with another linebreak, and scored a second later. Penrith hadn’t been able to capitalise on Blake and Cleary’s double linebreak in the first stanza, but the Raiders had come through here, rocketing ahead to twenty points once Croker booted another two points through the posts.

Canberra played like they’d already won on the next set, which started with a pair of big charges from Soliola and Sutton, before Soliola took the hit-up again on the fourth tackle. This time Aekins missed the high ball, but the bounce favoured DWZ, who got it across to his brother before taking control again on the second tackle. Tempers flared again on the cusp of the final quarter following a high-octane encounter between MWZ and Hodgson, before a pair of errors from JFH (working on the ground) and RCG (ball strip) set up Croker to slot another penalty goal through the posts.

Two successive dropout now helped Canberra to consolidate their advantage, before a second pair of linebreaks – from Croker and Young – resulted in Young scoring his first try in the NRL seven minutes out from the end. Incredibly, the Panthers got the ball back on the restart, and Tamou made the most of the scattered defensive line to burst through like an outside back and slam down another four points for Penrith. Finally, the comeback kings were in comeback mode, but it was too late, and this remained a consolation try, as a penalty from Blake laid the platform for Croker to make a final kick eight seconds from the siren.

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For a moment, it looked we might be in for a thriller when Blake smashed over a couple of minutes out from the end, but the try was disallowed due to an offside penalty for Grant, marking the end of this late surge of confidence from the visitors. They’ll be looking for a big win over the Wests Tigers, then, when they meet them for a displaced battle of the West at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night, while the Raiders will be keen to continue this splendid momentum when they take on the Roosters two days later, for the penultimate match of Magic Round.

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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