PERTH NINES: Day One, Pool One (HBF Park, 19/2/20)

The first game of the Perth Nines was Panthers-Roosters, and there was a strong disparity in experience between the two outfits. Whereas Penrith had a pretty stacked team, and were clearly playing to win, Sydney were more conservative, using the tournament to showcase some of their young guns, along with a more eccentric veteran choices in Nick Davis, who was pretty quiet over the first game, despite bringing some serious skills from AFL. On the other side of the Steeden, this was the Panthers’ first game without James Maloney in the halves, putting additional pressure on Nathan Cleary to guide and organise the Penrith spine.

Lachlan Lam took the first kick, and Moses Leota the first carry, before Viliame Kikau broke through the line and scored on the left edge on the second tackle, so confident in his speed and strength that he didn’t even need to consider Josh Mansour on his outside. Drew Hutchison made a couple of cracks at him, and Lindsay Collins came close, but Kikau evaded them both, putting Penrith six ahead once Cleary added the extras. Liam Martin made an error on the restart, but an offside penalty from Sam Verrills got the Panthers back on the front foot shortly after, and Cleary now stepped into the spotlight, running deep into the line and waiting until the last minute to drop the footy onto his boot.

Cleary’s play drew in two defenders and opened up a big space for Brent Naden to scoop up the Steeden and surge into the yellow zone for a bonus try. Matt Burton took over kicking duties for the next conversion, and then sent a beautiful curving ball of the tee on the restart. While Apisai Koroisau might have leaked an obstruction penalty a moment later, he made up for by sending Mansour through the line for a second bonus try, converted once again by Burton to bring the Panthers to 20-0 with only seven minutes on the board. Two errors from Sydney young guns now followed – Christian Tuipuloto and Freddy Lussick – before Verrills was penalised for a second time, for a hand in the ruck.

After these double errors and double penalty for Verrills, it felt almost inevitable when Kikau barged past Lussick to put down a double try on the stroke of half time – a sterling end to the first half, even if Burton’s kick bounced off the uprights as the siren rang out. Hutchison kicked from inside his own half for the first set after the break, and Cleary cleaned up the footy without too much trouble, before Koroisau ended the first Panthers set by forcing an offside error from Egan Butcher. Jahrome Luai now stepped up, showcasing some strong footwork on the third tackle, before Koroisau’s next last-tackle effort was cleaned up by Hutchison, only for Asu Kepaoa to flick the ball forward on its way to his captain.

Penrith now got a repeat set, and Kikau came close to reaching out his arm through a pack effort from the Roosters to plant the footy down on the left side of the park. This time, the Sydney City defence held strong, but this just gave the Panthers the opportunity to consolidate everything great about their last few minutes, as Luai made an even more scintillating show of footwork to send Koroisau across for a bonus try. Burton’s kickoff was overlong, and didn’t quite match his efforts in the first half, but Penrith got the ball back pretty quickly, and worked their way to the first dropout of the Nines, after Kepaoa was trapped in goal off a Luai kick.

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To make matters worse for the Tricolors, Lam sent the footy over the sideline on the full, and Hutchison coughed it up midway through their next set. The Panthers had enjoyed possession for pretty much the entire second half, which they concluded with a superb left sweep that started with a pitch-perfect pass from Mansour, and ended with an offload that sent Cleary across in the left corner for the final try of the game – and a historic 35-0 Nines win, beating the Bunnies’ previous record 31-0 win over Parramatta in 2015, the same year they won the competition in Auckland. Yet the next match in Pool One would be almost as stark, as Newcastle came away with a 34-0 win over New Zealand a couple of minutes later.

Kurt Gidley was the celebrity player for the Knights, and did considerably more than Nick Davis. That said, Newcastle had a bit of a spotty start, turning over the Steeden midway through the first set, but the Warriors didn’t do much with it, as Paul Turner chased down and tackled Tex Hoy, before Blake Green’s first kick bounced back at an odd angle, producing a knock-on for Taane Milne. Kurt Mann ended the next set with a strong kick, but Tyrone Roberts-Davis followed Milne by knocking the footy on instead of collecting it. For a second, it looked like Agnatius Paasi might break the game open with a linebreak and big run down the middle, but he mucked up a round-the-corner pass under some considerable pressure from the defence.

New Zealand wouldn’t score at all over the rest of the game, while the Knights would put down a torrent of points that started with Mason Lino breaking through on the right edge to score the first try just after Paasi’s error. The Knights got another burst of field position following a knock-on from Leivaha Pulu, and Mann made a big run up the right edge, shifting the footy out to Lino, who surged back into the right corner, and then sent what would have been a superb try assist out to Hymel Hunt if the ex-Rabbitoh hadn’t put a boot on the sideline. However, with Green sending through a fairly lackluster kick on the fourth tackle of the next set, the Knights were back in good position, and capitalised immediately.

This time it was a more junior player who put down points, as Starford Toa slammed down the left sideline to curve around and ground the footy in the bonus try zone. Newcastle were now thirteen ahead with a minute to go, but still managed to score once again before the siren – or on the siren. Once again, an error from Milne provided the platform, setting up Roberts-Davis to take a big opening tackle, before Hoy straightened the play on the second. Gidley now turned back the clock, offloading the footy to Brodie Jones to slam across for another bonus try, bringing the Knights to a twenty point lead as they took a break on the sideline.

This combination between a club legend and young gun was Nines spectacle at its best, especially since Davis hadn’t really done much with his Sydney and Collngwood pedigree in his opening game for the Roosters. The Knights started the second half just as strong, making rapid inroads into New Zealand territory, as Mann made a kick that initially looked too heavy, only for Sione Mata’utia to execute the best kick chase of the 2020 tournament so far to ground it just before the dead ball line. Unlike the Panthers, the Knights had remained consistent with their goalkickers so far – and for good reason, since Lino now sent another one through the posts to rocket the scoreline up to 26-0.

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The Warriors followed Mata’utia’s try with only their third completed set, but Lino silenced them with a terrific kick out dummy half that forced Adam Keighran to boot through the first dropout of the match. Gidley now commenced another superb tryscoring sequence, sending the Steeden rapidly out to the right edge, where it ended with Hoy – another great combo between the veteran and an up-and-coming player. With such an insurmountable lead, Newcastle could enjoy a bit of spectacle, and so Gidley took the conversion, but missed it, perhaps explaining why the next set was once of the least convincing from Newcastle – at least compared to what they’d delivered so far, with the Warriors holding up Hoy on the right edge before Rocco Berry cleaned up a Mann grubber on the last.

Nevertheless, the Warriors were still trapped within their own five by the third tackle of the next set, and while Edward Kosi made a big run on the fourth, the Knights cleaned up Pulu forty metres out from the Newcastle line. No surprise, then, that the blue and red scored again on this set, as Matt Soper-Lawler simply chased down a Gidley kick, gathered it into his chest, and slammed it to earth to bring Newcastle to a 34-0 win. If Lino had made the conversion, the Knights would have broken the Nines record that the Panthers had just set, but even so this was still a spectacular affair – as one-sided as Penrith’s opening win over the Tricolors, making tomorrow’s Pool One matches an intriguing and exciting prospect.

About Billy Stevenson (488 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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