The first club game after Origin III started even slower than Origin III, with both teams struggling to score a try until Dylan Edwards put down the first four-pointer more than a half an hour in. The Panthers put points on the board very early, however, thanks to a mistake from Bryce Cartwright in the opening set, and then a slow peel from Moeaki Fotuaika right in front of the posts, where James Maloney took the two.
Maloney showed some strong vision at the end of the next set, shaping to kick, dummying, and only then kicking to the corner, where Phillip Sami had to scramble to come up with the Steeden. Shortly after, the Panthers got a repeat set, and their first big tryscoring opportunity of the night – a flick pass from Viliame Kikau, and then a well-timed kick from Jarome Luai, that saw James Tamou almost cross over a tackle later, only to be brought to ground right in front of the posts.
Only a knock-on from Luai prevented the home team from making the most of their renewed field position. By all accounts, Penrith should have scored here, so Gold Coast surged back down the other end of the field with their first real show of confidence all night, culminating with Tyrone Roberts forcing Edwards right back to the try line to clean up the high ball, before dodging out of position to clean up a Maloney kick a set later.
The Panthers responded with their first big sweep to the left, having mainly focused on their right edge attack, resulting in their second big tryscoring opportunity. It started with a deft pass from Dean Whare to Luai, who booted the footy deep into the left corner, where only a massive defensive effort from AJ Brimson prevented Brent Naden from scoring then and there.
For a second time, Penrith had been thwarted, and James Fisher-Harris took out some of their frustration with the biggest hit of the night so far, on Nathan Peats, during their next set. Nevertheless, the Titans were ascendant, and got a significant opportunity in their left corner, thanks to a superb triple dummy from Brian Kelly. Yet it all came to nothing when Cartwright made his second mistake of the night, knocking on the football just as Gold Coast were getting set to score.Embed from Getty Images
Once again, the Panthers got a chance, thanks to some good work from Maloney and then a cut-out pass from Luai to Mansour, who send the football back inside the field. While the Titans managed to contain the play, Penrith got a late penalty following a slow peel from Wallace, and took another shot at the line, only for Fotuiaka to mimic Roberts by catching a critical kick on the full, this time from Luai.
Nevertheless, the Gold Coast plummeted for a bit, with Wallace knocking on the Titans’ own high ball, and Dale Copley leaving the field for an HIA following a collision with Kikau. While a penalty from Frank Winterstein for a hand in the ruck got the visitors some of their best field position of the game, they were still unable to put down a try, choosing to take the two, and level the score, after a late tackle from James Fisher-Harris.
Mansour now copped an unlucky break – a penalty for a strip on Brimson with two in the tackle, despite the fact that Luai appeared to have muscled in just as his winger had secured possession of the Steeden. Mansour made up for it by beating Anthony Don in the corner at the end of the next set, but the Titans got the next big tryscoring opportunity with an obstruction penalty thirty metres out from their line, about twelve minutes from the half-time siren.
In the most agonising moment of the game so far, however, Jack Stockwell knocked on almost immediately, allowing Penrith to regain the footy with a seven tackle set to boot. This led to one of the fastest sets of the night so far, and finally produced the first try, as Luai sent Edwards over the line to the right of the posts. All night, Luai had been making potential try assists, restlessly seeking out gaps in the Gold Coast defence, and he played three key roles in the tackle that preceded Edwards’ four-pointer.
First, Luai was instrumental in a left sweep that drew players away from the Titans’ own left edge. Second, he regathered the footy in the middle of the field, and pivoted off both legs, eluding and dispersing the Gold Coast defence before shifting the footy to Tamou. Finally, he regathered the Steeden from the big Penrith forward and offloaded to Edwards, culminating a particularly driven forty minutes in the five-eighth jersey.Embed from Getty Images
The Titans got their next big chance with a goal line dropout, but Sami – incredibly – allowed the football to bounce into touch. On the back of that howler, Penrith once again consolidated, finally locking into top gear after Brimson, and then Matthews, lost control of the high ball. In a split second, Maloney scooped it up, before popping a harbor bridge pass across to the right edge of the field, where Brian To’o scored his second try in the NRL.
This was easily the best pass of the night so far, Luai’s offload included – the kind of high-risk, high-confidence play that can make Maloney such a visionary leader on the field. Sensing that this was the critical try for getting the Panthers back in motion, To’o added a bit of showmanship, launching himself high in the air like it was Marvel Round, before slamming the footy to ground with one hand, as if channeling Josh Ado-Carr and Blake Fergsuon in a single movement.
It was just the display of flamboyance that Penrith needed after such a sluggish start. While Maloney didn’t manage the sideline conversion, he still made it a twelve point lead with a penalty goal after the siren, following a leg pull from a frustrated AJ Brimson. Despite this late surge, however, both teams still struggled to put down tries as the second stanza got underway, despite a general rise in energy across the park, including the first 40/20 of the night from Roberts six minutes in.
Sami followed up with the first Gold Coast linebreak of the night about six minutes later, but it came to nothing when Matthews lost the football – a mistake that was almost as agonising as Stockwell’s error in the first half. To’o took the first tackle on the next set, and moments later, Isaah Yeoh got the footy to Naden, who sent a kick deep into the defence. For a moment, Edwards looked set to score a double, circling around the Steeden until it was safe to scoop it up, but Ryley Jacks got there first.
Still, Penrith had a goal line dropout, and Moses Leota started up with a massive run that laid the platform for a barnstorming effort from Kikau on the left edge. In one of his few missteps of the night, however, Luai passed too hard to Mansour, sending the footy spiraling into touch just as the Panthers were starting to consolidate again. If anything, though, the Titans seemed to grow more exhausted over the next few sets, resulting in one awkward last tackle option after another.Embed from Getty Images
The nadir came eleven minutes out, when Wallace kicked the footy into touch, shortly after Cartwright had been forced to kick on the last. With Jacks off with a rib injury, and Copley off ever since his HIA, the Titans were running on empty, allowing the Panthers to recapitulate their two tries of the first stanza, more or less repeating the end of the opening forty minutes to get both Edwards and To’o doubles.
Edwards’ double came immediately after Wallace’s effort, when Maloney almost broke through the line on the third, only to be stopped by a desperate effort from Peats. Once again, the magic ingredient was an offload from Luai, who again brought the ball back across the front of the ruck, dodging and weaving his way around the defence before shifting it across to his fullback, who fended off Kelly, eluded Peats and got to ground before Wallace could hold him up.
Five minutes out, Naden kicked deep into the defence once again, forcing Roberts to put in a trysaving tackle that was almost as good as Jacks’ earlier effort. Yet Maloney corrected almost immediately, chipping to the right edge for To’o to cross over for the second time that night. In speed and trajectory, the chip didn’t feel all that different from Maloney’s earlier harbor bridge pass, making this a near mirror image of the end of the first stanza, although To’o didn’t need the theatrics this time around.
Naden’s kick just made the try all the more confident, partly because it invoked all the missed opportunities that both teams had suffered over the course of the night. By finally translating one of those opportunities into a remarkably symmetrical match, the Panthers came away with one of their most satisfying wins of the later part of the season, and will be looking to make it seven wins in a row when they host the Dragons in Penrith next week.
On the other side of the Steeden, this was a pretty dispiriting loss for the Titans, who now haven’t won a game since they hosted the Broncos in Round 13. They face some big challenges over the next couple of weeks, when they take on the Storm, Broncos and Roosters – all teams who will be keen to use Gold Coast to cement their hold on the buildup to the finals. The Titans will need to bring a superhuman effort, then, to regain some pride, and face this coming hurdle before the final part of their season.