ROUND 7: Penrith Panthers v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, 25/6/20)

Penrith had beat every team they’d played apart from Parramatta when they hosted the Rabbitohs at Jubilee Oval on Thursday night. They didn’t have Josh Mansour on the wing, but were lucky to have Nathan Cleary on the park, although the Bunnies were also lucky to get away without a penalty after a late tackle from Cameron Murray on Cleary before his first kick. George Burgess made an amazing run on the second play of the Rabbitohs’ first set, but Cleary got some satisfaction with a tough trysaver to prevent Latrell Mitchell crossing over on the left edge. Murray responded with an eccentric kick on the last tackle, but Penrith came up with the ball, while Brent Naden coped well under the first of many soaring bombs from Adam Reynolds a set later. Unfortunately, Dylan Edwards dropped the ball two plays later, but Mitchell also lost the footy on the first tackle, due to a big effort from Viliame Kikau, who thereby made up for his own error in the opening minute of the match.

Brent Naden now made good metres up the left edge, and somehow stayed in touch when taking the tackle, before finishing this splendid run on the final play, when he found receiving a superb cut-out pass from Jarome Luai, who had himself received a deft tap-back from Kikau after a contest with Dane Gagai beneath Cleary’s bomb. Cleary’s next kick wasn’t so great – a weird conversion attempt that barely cleared the uprights before bouncing off the left post and over the dead ball line – but the Panthers were still clearly ahead here. They let Reynolds’ next kick bounce, as Braidon Burns recovered it, and Alex Johnston made a second kick, but Luai was as successful at the back of this contested ball as he had been for the try, gathering up the footy and getting an offside penalty from Campbell Graham on the same play. The Panthers came close to their next try on the following set, thanks to two offloads from Kikau, including a superb scoop off the ground just as the South Sydney defence closed in on him, but it came to nothing when Stephen Crichton made a flagrantly forward pass to the left wing.

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Meanwhile, the Bunnies got the first restart – thirteen minutes into the match – on their next set – only for Burns to lose the footy on the fourth play, thanks to Cleary, who produced a terrific sequel to his earlier trysaver on Latrell. Dylan Edwards now made a barnstorming run up the middle of the field, and the Bunnies let Cleary’s bomb bounce, although Gagai cleaned it up relatively easily in the end. Cody Walker responded to Edwards with an equally good run on the next set, before Reynolds booted through his floatiest bomb of the night, but Naden was safe – unlike Johnston, who leaped up under the next Cleary kick, and almost let it pass clean through his hands, only to make the slightest contact to give Penrith the scrum feed. Souths contained a big push from Penrith on the right edge, then Kikau put a big fend on Reynolds and tried to crash over on the right side. Cleary kicked to the right on the last, where Liam Martin knocked on in goal – and Johnston made the most of the quick tap, getting his men to the cusp of the forty metre line on the first play.

Murray followed with an equally good run, and Souths were twenty-five metres out by the third tackle, making this their best acceleration of field position all night. It was a big blow, then, when Latrell finished a searching run across the ruck with a pretty uninspired kick to the right edge, where the Panthers recovered the footy immediately, and started marching back up the field. By this stage Penrith had 61% of possession, had completed 8/11 sets, and received their first restart next time they had ball in hand, marking the start of a sustained period in field position that would eventually result in their next try. They almost scored at the end of this set, when Crichton tapped back the high ball, which ricocheted off Luai’s boot before Luai himself recovered it and shot out a cut-out pass to Naden, who found no space on the wing, and so opted for a second-phase flick pass back to his five-eighth, tempting Campbell Graham to knock the footy on in the interim.

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This was the most promising repeat set so far for the Panthers, who started wit a hard run from James Fisher-Harris, before Naden almost made good on his last play, collecting a cut-out pass from Crichton, and reaching out the footy to score when Jayden Su’A made a huge trysaver to bobble the ball out of his hands just before it hit the ground. Nevertheless, the Panthers scored at the end of their next bout of field position, which came with a ball strip from Ethan Lowe. This time Luai was the assist, dummying, running into the line, and judging the depth perfectly for a left foot kick. Crichton responded with a sublime kick chase, outpacing Gagai to get it down at speed – a putdown that looked ambiguous in real time, but revealed its real elegance under the Bunker’s slow-motion scrutiny. Once again, however, Cleary missed the conversion, meaning the Panthers only had an eight point lead to show for a pretty dominant opening half, while Latrell lost another ball on the first play, albeit getting a one-on-one strip on the next, as the Bunnies settled into one of their best periods of field position all game.

It all culminated with Reynolds and Walker getting Johnston a linebreak on the left edge, only for Johnston lob the footy forward, costing the 8-6 scoreline that a deft inside pass could have produced. The score remained 8-0 heading into the sheds, but the Rabbitohs got another bout of field position after the break, enjoying three consecutive sets, the third of which was particularly striking. Latrell sent a cut-out pass across to the left edge, where Walker just managed to stay in the field of play, and then Reynolds’ last kick deflected forty metres back off Kikau’s boot, meaning the Bunnies had to restart the set halfway down the park. They headed left once more, but this time Latrell dropped the footy instead of getting to another cut-out pass, bringing this promising surge of possession to nothing. Penrith got a penalty on the first play after Liam Knight was called offside, and Martin almost broke through the line on tackle three, but Souths came back quickly, getting a set restart, an offside penalty of their own off Zane Tetevano, and then a second penalty in quite succession after an early tackle from Moses Leota.

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Latrell now took the footy deep into the corner, Cook managed a good offload after slipping over, and Reynolds ended with a brilliant right-foot kick, sending the footy under a leaping Kikau to get South Sydney the first dropout of the second stanza. This time it all came together for the Bunnies, thanks to Reynolds, who came from right to left, ran into the line, and shifted the footy back inside to Bayley Sironen, who drove through three Penrith defenders to score, narrowing the deficit to two point once Reynolds bookended this splendid sequence by booting through the extras. Latrell seemed to glimpse a new confidence when bringing back a Cleary kick a set later, while the Rabbits amped up their defence over the next few Penrith sets. Latrell then took another high ball, and little by little the Bunnies were getting back into first gear, as Burns made the offload count 7-4 to Souths with a deft pass out the back to Cook.

The Bunnies now had 67% of possession in the second half, and were now completing around 80%, rather than 60%, so it was a big letoff when the Panthers just survived a potential intercept from James Roberts about twenty minutes in. The mountain men seemed to absorb some of Roberts’ speed now, as Brian To’o made a big run up the right side, busting through tackles from Burns and Cook to reach the ten, before Murray risked a professional foul with an offside penalty. Penrith opted to tap and go, and James Tamou and James Fisher-Harris took big runs in front of the posts, before Cleary got Crichton across the chalk with a sublime one-handed pass, only for Kikau to obstruct Reynolds, giving South Sydney the footy once again. Yet Latrell followed with his fourth error of the evening, losing the ball at the start of the tackle count, before Murray leaked his second consecutive penalty, this time for crowding. Once more Penrith went for the line, and this time they scored, thanks to a superb one-man effort from Edwards on the right edge, where he received the footy from Cleary.

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Edwards swivelled left, fended off Burns, made as if to pass for To’o, but instead scooted through a low tackle from Johnston to put down the simplest and most elegant try so far. Ironically, this was just as direct as the Panthers’ previous effort on the left edge, but this time there was no obstruction, just a bad defensive read from Walker. Cleary needed to get through the next kick, but instead came up with his worst conversion attempt to date, sending the Steeden ricocheting away to the right of the posts from the right side of the field, so you had to wonder whether the bandage between his eyes was just throwing his focus off. Meanwhile, Edwards was brilliant under one of Reynolds’ biggest kicks of the night, tempting Walker into an air tackle that piggy-backed Penrith down the field. Isaah Yeoh was called offside following Cleary’s next bomb, and Reynolds went for extra metres with the penalty kick, but he’d reckoned without To’o, who rolled himself around the bouncing ball, before collecting it for another Penrith set. Cleary concluded with a beautiful kick on the left, trapping Graham in goal for a dropout by forcing a second from Latrell on the restart.

Naden almost broke through again on the left edge, Apisai Koroisau seemed to force a third dropout, once again at Latrell’s expense, only for Roberts to commit a professional foul on Crichton, forcing Souths to defend with twelve men at the worst possible time. This time Penrith opted to take the two, and this time Cleary got the ball through the posts, albeit at another weird long angle, and with a big divot in the field, that clarified this as a pretty uncharacteristic night with the boot. Things got worse for the Bunnies when Latrell made a superb cover tackle on Naden in the final minutes of the game, only for his defensive acumen to turn into a professional foul with an unnecessary leg pull that saw South Sydney defending with eleven men. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Cleary now culminated a brilliant organizational game, breaking away from a tackle in the middle of the game, dummy right, dummying left, getting inside Lowe and making his way to the right line, where he rolled over Cook and maintained possession with one hand to slam down the last Penrith try.

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He might have missed six points in conversion, but Cleary asserted his dominance and leadership perfectly here, booting through the final kick to bring Penrith to twenty. South Sydney had the last word, as Johnston sent Walker across with a minute on the clock, before Reynolds made it 9/11 from the sideline, putting him in the company of some of the greatest kickers in NRL history. Still, this conclusion was all Penrith – a splendid game that sets them in good stead to take on the Tigers for a western derby next Saturday night at Bankwest. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a disappointing finish for South Sydney, who’d glimpsed the advantage at several key points throughout the night, so they’ll be looking for a more consistent effort – and looking to make more consistent use of Latrell – when they rock up to the Bulldogs in Round 8.

About Billy Stevenson (732 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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