ROUND 4: Penrith Panthers v. New Zealand Warriors (Campbelltown Stadium, 5/6/20)

Penrith had a lot to contend with after New Zealand’s historic game against the Dragons last week, along with the frustration of their draw against the Knights, so they started with purpose on Friday night, bunching the visitors in their own end for the first couple of sets. Still, the Warriors survived the first real attacking opportunity – a kick from Matt Burton on the fourth, and then a second kick from Jarome Luai on the last (Nathan Cleary was still suspended) before getting the first six again call early in their next set. Viliame Kikau made the first major offload of the night, to Caleb Aekins, next time Penrith had ball in hand, and New Zealand were lucky to avoid a penalty when Adam Blair took out James Fisher-Harris without the footy. Despite a few big contests and several scrambles under the high ball, both teams managed to recover the football, creating a set-for-set rhythm until Penrith got their first big surge after Hayze Perham gave away the opening penalty of the night, for an illegal strip.

They really felt Cleary’s absence at the end of this set, when Luai mistimed the kick – and the Warriors capitalised on it, getting another six again call a moment later, and ending their next sequence with a superb bomb from Kodi Nikorima. James Tamou and Kurt Capewell were restless to break through a minute later, and Luai showed that he could bomb just as well as Nikorima, soaring the Steeden towards the left corner, where Patrick Herbert knocked it forward, leaving it open for Matt Burton to scoop it up, tuck it under his right arm, and dodge around Roger the Dodger for his first NRL try. There was a brief question of a touch from Stephen Crichton, but the replay showed that he had only brushed the ball backwards, putting the Panthers six ahead as Crichton continued their perfect goal record this season. They now got a penalty after Blake Green was offside, a set restart two tackles later, and then even more field position when Gerald Beale was the first casualty of a double knock-on with Kikau.

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This was the biggest defensive challenges for the Warriors so far, and they stayed strong, wrapping up Tamou with a pack effort on the right, disposing of Luai as he hesitated in the middle of the park, preventing a big run at the posts from Isaah Yeoh, halting Fisher-Harris in his tracks, and finally holding up Apisaui Koroisau when he crashed over beside the right post, trying to use Fish as a fulcrum. Finally, with this masterpiece of goal line defence, New Zealand had risen to the level of their game against St. George – and for the first time the Panthers looked desperate, especially when Luai tried to compensate for his hesitation in front of the posts, with a high tackle on RTS, just after Beale had made up for his knock-on with a clinical cleanup of Burton’s last kick. New Zealand well and truly had the momentum behind them now, but Crichton rose to the challenge of Nikorima’s next kick, leaping out of a sea of New Zealand jerseys to secure the Steeden right on the Warriors line.

The momentum shifted even more suddenly at the end of their next set, when Green’s kick ricocheted off Burton, who chased it down, found the bounce sitting up for him perfectly at the forty, and was too far ahead for Herbert to prevent him scoring a double, while RTS was still making his way out of what had just been the attacking line. Even though a low grubber wasn’t the best kick option from Green, this was arguably the luckiest try of the year so far, and the key turning-point of this match in particular, even if Crichton missed the first conversion of the year for the mountain men. No surprise that the Warriors slumped a bit here, as King Vuniyayawa lost the footy on his first touch, and was then penalised for an illegal strip, before Eliesa Katoa and Poasa Faamausili leaked a pair of penalties for a hand in the ruck and a dangerous tackle respectively, as Penrith clocked up their field position in preparation for their next try.

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The Warriors wasted their Captain’s Challenge trying to contest a lost ball from Eliesa Katoa, who tried to play it too quickly during a tackle from Luai and Capewell, before RTS left the high ball for Herbert to collect a few sets later – a bad call, as it turned out, since Herbert lost it, Kikau collected it, and Koroisau sent a wide pass out to Luai, who kicked for himself off the right boot. This was a rousing way for the mountain men to reaffirm their resilience in the absence of their star halfback, and raises genuine questions about how Burton and Luai will be configured when Cleary returns to the park next week. It was disheartening to see Herbert lose the high ball for a second successive time, as he fumbled it on the ground for Crichton to collect a set later, but at least the Warriors got a penalty for an escort from Crichton on Beale. It all came to a dour end, however, with a forward pass from Perham, whose errors bookended this first forty of football for the Warriors, which had been so different from their groundbreaking vision of sped-up rugby league against the Dragons last week.

By contrast, Penrith were electric the moment they returned form the sheds, as Leota broke through the line, setting the platform for Luai and Burton to pop a pair of wide balls across to Kikau, who skipped, put the footy in one hand, fended off the defence, and flick passed to Crichton. As Crichton drew in the defenders, he seemed set for the wing play himself, only to shift the Steeden across for Josh Mansour to dance up the sideline and break his eighteen-game drought – the longest in his career – with his first four-pointer since April 12 last year. Crichton missed another conversion, but Penrith were still 20-0, before Aekins let the next high ball tumble through his hands, only for Mansour to save the day by securing a loose carry from Tohu Harris. Clearly, the Panthers had enough rhythm to recorrect, while the Warriors were letting chances go begging – most notably their next set restart, which closed up immediately when RTS sent a restless offload out to the right of the ruck, where it was cleaned up by Crichton.

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The last quarter of the game was a bit of a slog, especially once Penrith had scored the last try of the night at the 63rd minute, off an error and penalty for Jack Murchie, with Tamou also managing to grubber for RTS during this preceding sequence. By this point, the Panthers were already on top of the live ladder, and they consolidated beautifully here, as Tamou, Yeoh and Aekins took big hits as they drifted to the right side of the field, before Tamou ran into the defence again on the fourth, in the middle of the park. The halves now converged for their best single combination since Cleary’s absence, as Luai held up the Warriors just long enough to create space for Burton to assist Billy Burns, who waltzed through the line for the last four-pointer, setting up Crichton for the easiest conversion of the night. Despite a linebreak for Beale a minute later, and a pair of penalties from Burton and Yeoh five minutes out, the Panthers kept New Zealand from scoring a single point, making for an intriguing prospect when these two outfits take on the Eels and Cowboys respectively in Round 5.

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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