The Panthers had their last home game of the post-lockdown era at Campbelltown on Friday night, coming away with a shock win over a Storm outfit that seemed destined to take home the competition points after more than doubling Newcastle the week before. Dylan Edwards was back for his first game of 2020, and Apisai Koroisau had clearly improved his running game, making a terrific carry three metres in after only four runs against Parramatta last week. The Storm got an early seven tackle set after a Dean Whare kick went too far on the right side, allowing Ryan Papenhuyzen to usher it into touch, but the Melbourne fullback didn’t nail the end of the next set, finding himself in place to collect a tap-back from Suliasi Vunivalu but accidentally kicking it over the sideline. Penrith had the first scrum feed, and Nathan Cleary kicked early to stabilise the balance of field position – and it worked, forcing Papenhuyzen to kick from the other side of the forty at the end of Melbourne’s next set. Cleary followed up by kicking on the last, and Marion Seve gathered the high ball with a slight bobble as Dale Finucane was taken off the park to have a dislocated finger reset.
The Storm now got the first penalty of the game – crowding from Jarome Luai – and Kenny Bromwich and Brandon Smith laid the platform for the first restart, as Cameron Smith got his first real chance to showcase some of the magic he delivered against the Knights. They stayed on the left side of the park, but the Penrith defence swallowed up big runs from Jesse and Kenny Bromwich, before Dean Whare cleaned up Justin Olam on the final play. This was a big letoff for the Panthers, and a testament to their improved defence in 2020, when they’ve skyrocketed from the second worst to the best team in the competition at containing tackles. Seve, a late inclusion for Josh Ado-Carr, had struggled under the last Cleary bomb, and next time he was targeted he spilled it. The Panthers opted for a midfield scrum, using this long-range perspective to set up Vilimae Kikau for a left side raid that continued through big hits on James Tamou, Kikau again, and Isaah Yeoh, before Penrith finally headed to the right side of the field, where they survived one of their most eccentric sequences so far in 2020.Embed from Getty Images
Cleary sent the footy to Edwards, and Olam stormed in for his biggest hit of the night, determined to compensate for being cleaned up a few sets before. Nevertheless, Edwards got the ball across to Liam Martin, who nearly broke through three defenders to score on the right edge, before Whare sent a pass back that falconed off Edwards and found Cleary. As if sensing the next ten minutes of the game rotating around his decision, the Penrith halfback stayed strong, making the clutch kick of the night, under considerable pressure from Kenny Edwards, to get the footy to the right corner, where Brian To’o stormed in and forced Smith to tap it into touch. Penrith now had the first dropout of the night, and once again Cleary bombed to the right corner, where an escort from Olam on To’o got Penrith yet another burst of field position. They had to score here or else concede the momentum back to Melbourne, and looked good for the first two plays, when Tamou and Yeoh cleared space with a pair of strong carries, but they couldn’t survive a second successive falcon, and when the footy ricocheted off Kikau’s head on the third play Melbourne finally got the letoff they needed.
This must have been one of the densest sequences of head balls in NRL history, since Cameron Munster shot out a wide pass that careened off Kenny Bromwich three tackles later. The Storm got the ball back, but didn’t do much with this set, while Mansour immediately recapitulated the energy of the last bout of Penrith field position with a barnstorming run on the first play, followed by the best offload of the game so far, to set up ten more metres for Stephen Crichton. This was probably the fastest and most fluid Panthers sequence all night, so it made sense that Sauce and Crichton combined again two tackles later, on the tail end of a terrific deception play out of dummy pass from Koirisau, and a crisp cut-out effort from Kikau that sailed across Crichton’s chest and found Sauce on the sideline. Mansour added even more metres to this set, before shifting the footy back inside to Crichton to slam over in the corner to score – one of the deftest left edge plays from the Panthers all year, putting them six ahead once Cleary sailed the first conversion of the night through the uprights.Embed from Getty Images
Melbourne didn’t make much headway on their next set, while the Panthers seemed to elasticize further, as Ryley Jacks only just prevented a linebreak from Kikau, before Luai dummied at just the right moment on the last, creating space for his best kick of the night, to trap Papenhuyzen in goal for another Penrith dropout. Full credit has to go to Crichton for the kick chase, since Papenhuyzen was only just over the sideline in the left corner, but the Melbourne fullback got some closure at the end of the next set, when he cleaned up a kick in the same part of the park, but this time made it back into the field of play. For a moment, the Storm had seemed startled and disarmed by the Panthers’ resilience over these opening twenty minutes, but they amped up over the next few plays, and were helped by successive errors from James Fisher-Harris and Edwards. At the same time, Munster started to flex his muscles more, making his best play of the game when he held onto the football in the face of a tackle from Whare, getting it across to the left edge where the Storm had their fastest acceleration of field position so far, building momentum even if Seve kicked too hard on the last.
Sure enough, Munster consolidated on their next set with a try assist to Felise Kaufusi, who received the football on the inside shoulder of Luai, who never had a chance of defending him, especially with Christian Welch running a decoy play. Despite levelling the score, however, the Storm were the next to slump, now conceding a pair of errors much as Penrith had before Kaufusi’s try. The last was a memorable moment in the ongoing evolution of the Captain’s Challenge – an obstruction call on Cameron Smith, who claimed (correctly) to Ashley Klein that he had simply stood still as Nathan Cleary barged into him. In the past, Klein might have paid lip-service to this criticism, but he effectively launched a Captain’s Challenge of his own – a Challenge to the Captain – asking Smith whether he wanted to make a Challenge before abruptly shutting down the conversation. Ironically, this challenge from Klein probably intimidated or at least dissuaded Smith from taking the risk of a Challenge, culminating a fairly risk-averse approach to the Challenge generally from Melbourne, who at this point were the only NRL team along with St. George-Illawarra not to make a Challenge in the 2020 season.Embed from Getty Images
As it turned out, this was the wrong decision here, since the replay confirmed Smith, who by backing down cost his men another two points, since Cleary was always going to boot the goal through the posts from this angle and position. In retrospect, this was one of the key turning-points of the game – in terms of mood as much as points – although the Storm did return from the sheds with a bang, setting up two successive dropouts in the first five minutes. They looked set to score on the second, when Tino Faasuamaleaui, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Welch got them in position to take the lead for the first time, but the Panthers cleaned up NAS’s offload, as they did Munster on the next play, before Whare, To’o and Cleary slid Olam over the dewy sideline at the back end of an overlong cut-out ball from Welch. Just like that, Penrith had recovered the momentum, and now moved rapidly up the field, capitalizing on a strong run from Martin up the right edge. Papenhuyzen leaped up above Kenny Bromwich, AFL-style, to collect the high ball, but the Panthers were consolidating, putting pressure on Smith’s next kick, and scoring on their very next touch of the footy.
As with their last tryscoring sequence, Mansour took the first run, and was followed by a strong tally of post-contact metres from To’o on the third, bookended by big carries from Yeoh. They got six again after Faasuamaleaui made brief contact with the ball as it rolled backwards, and swept right again on the fourth play with a sublime sequence of bullet passes, shifting the footy through Yeoh, Cleary and Edwards, who drove deep into the line before popping it across to To’o to brush off Papenhuyzen for another six points once Cleary added the conversion. Martin made another good run on the restart, Koroisau almost broke through the line – Jesse Bromwich only just caught him by the back of the jersey – and Cleary ended with a perfect kick, but Papenhuyzen just made it back into the field of play, while the Storm got a big letoff with only their second penalty of the night, following some undue crowding from Billy Burns. For Melbourne, this eight-point difference was a big deficit, so they had to start their comeback here – and for a moment they glimpsed it, when Vunivalu made his best run of the night up the right wing, but was downed by a brilliant ankle tap from Crichton.Embed from Getty Images
At first, it looked like Vunivalu managed to avoid the sideline, even when Mansour tumbled over the top, but he did touch the chalk at the last minute, inducing Smith to make his first Captain’s Challenge of the year to check whether the big winger had found touch before or after the tackle was completed. The replay showed that Sauce had pushed Vunivalu’s feet over in time, while the no. 2’s shorts seemed to have made marginal contact with the chalk earlier in the play anyway. This brought back bad memories of Smith’s earlier exchange with Klein, and could have dented the Storm’s rhythm further, but instead the purple army used the frustration of a wasted Challenge to galvanise them into their second and last try. Seve made his best take so far under a Cleary bomb, Olam made a good run to garner a set restart, and NAS set up a deft play-the-ball for Smith, before Munster spiraled around on the third and offloaded back to his captain for what initially looked like a tryscoring play. Penrith survived here, but they were no match for Munster when he dummied and bulleted across to Brenko Lee to slam through the defence for his first ever four points against the Panthers.
In a compressed version of the Storm’s last tryscoring sequence, Munster had made a near try assist, and then a full try assist, on the very same set. The Storm had the strongest post-try restart of either team so far, forcing an error from Mansour, and then a penalty from Burns from lying in the ruck – a pretty good result, given that there had only been ten mistakes in the game so far, with Penrith and Melbourne completing at 85% and 90% respectively. Smith opted to take the two, levelling the score as the last quarter arrived, but the Panthers regrouped immediately, thanks in part to a fresh burst of energy from Kikau, who returned to the park just after Smith’s kick, spearheading the first tackle on NAS before scoring at the end of the next set. Edwards survived Munster’s last-tackle kick, and made a strong opening run, before the big men muscled their way up through the ruck, briefly losing momentum with a loose carry before Edwards organized a deft passage of second-phase play that set up Cleary for a kick to the left edge.Embed from Getty Images
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Kikau now caught the footy on the full, barging past Papenhuyzen and sailing through the air for the last try of the night – a play he may not have pulled off, or pulled off so emphatically, if Ivan Cleary hadn’t made the wise decision to rest him when he did. For a moment it looked like Melbourne might consolidate once more, as Mansour was pinged for touching Papenhuyzen after he’d dropped the footy in the air, and Papenhuyzen and Seve made a pair of big bombs, but the Panthers stayed strong, holding their own even when Tamou lost the footy, seven mintues out from the end, on a set when Cleary was shaping to boot through a field goal. The cult halfback got the one-pointer three minutes later, and the Panthers survived an unsuccessful Captain’s Challenge – to contest a loose carry from Crichton – and then a sin bin for Martin in the final minute to come away with a seven point win, and their most emphatic statement of the 2020 season so far. They’ll be pumped, then, to take on the Rabbitohs for the first match of Round 7, while the Storm will be raring to bounce back from a shock loss when they host the Warriors on Friday night.