The Eels had lost by seven to the Cowboys, and the Panthers had lost by twenty to the Warriors, when they met for their first ever fixture at Bankwest, for the first match of Indigenous Round on Thursday evening. It was a hard-fought, low-scoring game, with only three tries and four penalty goals scored in total, as if the Panthers had learned from Parra’s decimating win over the Wests Tigers, and were determined to make sure that they weren’t similarly crushed in a Battle of the West at the West’s premier new stadium. Their win was all the more impressive in that James Maloney’s suspension meant that Nathan Cleary had to improvise alongside Jarome Luai in the halves, and approach the Penrith spine with a different style.
Initially it seemed like this would be a fast-scoring match, since the Eels put down points on their second set, two minutes in, off the back of the first mistake of the game from Dylan Edwards, who fell victim to the dewy, windless conditions with his first touch of the football. The try was disarmingly simple, as Maika Sivo scooped up a kick from Will Smith without too much pressure from the Panthers – only a solitary kick chase from Brian To’o that was effectively neutralised by Smith’s spatial awareness as he took advantage of some miscommunication between Cleary and Dean Whare to open up a massive gap on the left edge of the park with a deft dummy run that drew in the remainder of the Penrith defence.
With Mitchell Moses sending the Steeden through the uprights, the Eels were two points per minute, while Parra got the first penalty on the restart after Waqa Blake was pinged for lying in the ruck. Smith kicked to the left again, but Edwards was in place this time, and keen to make up for his costly error, as the Panthers got their hands on the football for only the second time in the game. They didn’t do much with it though, and leaked another penalty on the next Parramatta set, when Frank Winterstein made a nasty tackle on Moses just after his final kick, setting up the blue and gold for the next two points, as Mitch added the first penalty goal of the night to the first conversion, putting Parramatta eight points ahead.
This was the perfect moment for the Eels to consolidate, and their forward pack made some big tackles on the next set, but a mistimed kick from Moses got Penrith some good field position a moment later, before James Tamou showed that he could rival Parra’s biggest barging runs on the fourth play. Still, this set also ended uneventfully, and a third penalty for the Panthers – this time a slow peel from Whare – got the hosts another burst of field position. As it turned out, however, this was the apex of the first stanza for the Eels, who made their first mistake shortly after –a lost ball from Clint Gutherson – and their first penalty immediately after that, as a second effort from Shaun Lane set up Edwards for the first quick tap of the game.
This sudden shift in fortune seemed to spook Blake Ferguson, who was pinged for a marginal trip on Waqa Blake at the end of the set, and put on report – a Blake-on-Blake moment that marked the start of a decline for Parra, and the first real accumulation of field position for the Penrith side. A slow peel from Tim Mannah came next, but for a moment it seemed like his team might regather, as Mannah himself got a bit of closure by forcing Tim Grant to cough up the footy with a low tackle on the fourth, before Reed Mahoney almost broke through the line on the following set – the most kinetic moment in the game since Edwards’ quick tap.Embed from Getty Images
For the first time in the match, though, the Panthers looked just as good, from a skittering run across the ruck from Tamou, to a superb harbour bridge pass to the left edge from Cleary – and, finally, a grubber from Cleary that forced the first dropout of the night. With Mahoney penalised for a hand in the ruck midway through the dropout, Penrith had to put points on the board or else concede the momentum back to Parramatta, so it was a bit worrying when a wide ball from Blake was left to bounce on the grass before To’o recovered it on the right edge. Yet that just made it all the more exuerberant for the away crowd when Grant made up for his earlier error by collecting the footy from Katoa right on the line and twisting through Mahoney, M’au and Nikore for the gutsiest effort of the match so far.
This was just the kind of one man, big man effort that Penrith needed to get back in the game, and they barely felt two points behind once Cleary booted the extras through the posts. The night seemed to be heating up, but there would only be one more try, and three more penalty goals, over the next hour. For the next ten minutes it was a game of penalty goals, as Cleary added two on the back of a flop from Peni Terepo, and Moses then recovered the Eels’ two point lead after a flop from Moses Leota. All in all, though, Parra had a slight resurgence during this period, thanks in part to a linebreak from Lane that continued the momentum of his quick tap earlier in the first half.
The low point for Penrith came when Luai joined Fergo by being put on report for a dangerous tackle – and immediately after Moses’ second penalty goal, which suggested it was an act of desperation and frustration, especially since was preceded by two successive penalties from the Panthers. Only in the last three minutes before half time did Parra return to the splendid energy of the first three minutes, after the game was paused for To’o to get a brief medical examination. Re-energised by this breathing space, Fergo forced Blake to cough up the Steeden on the very next tackle, taking advantage of his discomfort with the left leg and the dewy surface to inject a new level of aggression and energy into Parra’s last couple of plays before the siren.
They seemed like a fresh team on the next set, heading rapidly to the right, where Fergo made a sterling effort to stay in the field of play, before the team pivoted around his defence to move right just as quickly. Terepo and Moses took big tackles on the last two tackles, before Sivo dragged To’o into touch after he seemed to have cleaned up the footy, giving the Eels a dropout with ten seconds on the clock. Moses opted for a penalty kick, but his boot didn’t deliver, and the Steeden came down ten metres shy of the uprights, making this a bit of a deflated ending for the blue and gold, who looked set to score if only they’d had a full set of six to take advantage of the dropout.
Parra got a couple of good opportunities after returning from the sheds, including a forward pass from Fuimaono to Mansour, and then a messy ball from Luai that Ferguson scooped up, but Penrith still managed to get the Steeden back from Lane a couple of tackles later. While the Eels got another boost following a slow peel from RCG, Fergo wasn’t so deft on the next play, making a couple of gos at a high pass from Smith before lobbing it forward into the Penrith defence. Nevertheless, the Panthers weren’t able to do much with this sudden shift in fortune, and the second half started to stagnate as both teams failed to capitalise on these accumulating errors.Embed from Getty Images
Penrith did get the next points, though, after an offside penalty from Niukore set up Cleary to boot another two through the posts. RCG made a massive run on the restart, as if willing this penalty kick to breathe new life into a pretty drab second half, but Katoa didn’t quite nail the 40/20 when he kicked out of dummy half on the fourth, resulting in a scrum feed rather than an additional burst of possession. As the night reached its dew point, and the air stayed still, the Steeden grew slipperier, defying Mitch Moses a couple of plays later, who made a rare handling error, before Viliame Kikau conceded a mistake just as quickly.
With so many opportunities squandered, and a scoreline of 10-10, it felt like the next try would determine the game – and that it must come from a big one man effort. Sure enough, Cleary bookended one of the deftest plays of the night at the one hour mark, almost bursting through the line early in the set, before chasing down a deflected kick from Luai, timing the run perfectly to gather the footy into his chest with both hands while fending off Reed Mahoney right on the try line. No surprise that he converted his four-pointer, but despite this surge of adrenaline, the game descended back into the grind of the third quarter for the final quarter, with the next ten minutes driven by errors from Moses, Mansour, Fergo, Paulo and Luai.
A superb pair of bombs from Cleary in the last few minutes failed to remunerate the mountain men, while a last-chance linebreak from Sivo was annulled by an error from Fergo at the worst possible time. Despite the six point win from Penrith, then, this was a pretty dour affair for both teams, so the mountain men will be looking for a big win margin when they host the Sea Eagles for the first of four matches in Round 12. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a pretty frustrating finish for Parramatta – especially at Bankwest – so they’ll be looking to make better use of their home ground advantage when they host the Rabbitohs for the second match in Round 12 without the key Origin playmakers on the park.