With many teams back to regular venues in Round 8, the Tigers trotted out to a proper home fixture at Bankwest on Saturday night – a battle of the cats against a Penrith outfit sitting third on the ladder, with Josh Mansour and Tyrone May back on the park, while Wests had climbed to seventh after strong wins over the Cowboys and Bulldogs the fortnight before. Thirty seconds in, Viliame Kikau put a massive hit on Luke Garner, single-handedly slamming him to ground, forcing the first error of the game, and setting the stage for an absolutely plosive performance from the Penrith Panthers. The mountain men shifted left on play three, as Nathan Cleary sent a perfect cut-out pass to Jarome Luai, who responded with a short ball to Stephen Crichton, who was unmarked on the wing, and pretty much walked over the line to score the first four points, before Cleary bookended the play with a superb sideline conversion. Mansour was especially pumped by the try, and took a big carry two tackles into the restart, tumbling over a pile of defenders, before Penrith piled on to prevent Adam Doeuihi making any significant headway next time the hosts got ball in hand.
The game was briefly paused for two players – Brent Naden, whose head ricocheted off Tommy Talau, and Matt Eisenhuth, who was left clutching his neck after a crusher tackle from James Fisher-Harris, who was put on report. The Tiges now had a very welcome burst of field position, and came close to scoring on their right edge, where Joey Leilua collected a harbour bridge pass from Josh Reynolds, but Kikau and Mansour converged on him for an epic trysaver, before Naden caught Reynolds’ final kick on the full. Penrith kept the Tigers in their own half next time they had possession – only a thirty metre gain – and then enjoyed a barnstorming acceleration of field position, starting with a pair of big runs from Sauce and Dylan Edwards. An offload from Luai saw Kikau get the Steeden across to Mansour for more metres up the left edge, and the Panthers got a restart just after, inside the Tigers’ twenty. Apisai Koiroisau got a metre out on the first play, James Tamou straightened the attack, Cleary set up Kikau to take on three defenders on the left, and then took a tackle, before Crichton leaped four metres above David Nofoaluma to tap the footy back to Kikau, who slammed over the chalk, only for the refs to correctly deem that Crichton had knocked on.Embed from Getty Images
This was a big let off for the Tigers, who got more room to recover when Moses Mbye had his right knee bandaged a set later. They followed with their best attack so far, as Grant dragged in a swathe of defenders on the right edge, before an even bigger sea of black and gold jerseys surged in to trap Brian To’o in goal at the back end of a perfectly weighted Luke Brooks kick. For a moment it looked like the hosts had secured the first dropout of the match, but instead Matt Eisenhuth was called offside downtown, and so the Panthers got marching back down the field again, receiving a set restart a few tackles in. Yet history now repeated itself, as Cleary seemed destined to set up a dropout, only for his kick to go long, as the Tigers now received a six again call on the back of a near-dropout when they got the football back. Doueihi made a bold cut-out pass to Talau midway down the park, but the left winger was thwarted by a massive pack effort from Cleary, To’o, Naden and Liam Martin, who shared a huddle after dragging him a metre out from the sideline, where he coughed up the Steeden.
Luckily, Nofoaluma sprang up to collect Cleary’s next kick on the full, as the Tiges ground in to contest what was quickly becoming one of Penrith’s most visceral and volatile performances of the last twelve months. They got six again midway through the set, and Brooks broke through a tackle from Martin and offloaded to Mbye, who would have scored then and there if To’o hadn’t intercepted the pass and momentarily absorbed this recent burst of Tigers energy for his own team. Reynolds just kicked for space at the end of the next set, but the Tiges got rolling again when Garner made a huge tackle on Edwards – a nice bit of catharsis after the opening hit from Kikau – to keep Penrith in their own end until Cleary kicked on play four. For a moment, Doueihi seemed to have timed the tap-back perfectly to preclude the 40/20, but the ref deemed that he had got a foot to the sideline with his fingertips still on the footy, although the replay suggested that the ex-Rabbitoh might have had a good case for a Captain’s Challenge on his hands here – literally. The Tigers now got a big scare when the Panthers headed left once more, where Luai sent a superb no-look pass across to Kikau, who in turn popped the footy out to Crichton for a potential second try.Embed from Getty Images
Reynolds, Clark and Mbye all stormed in, and for a moment Crichton seemed to have offloaded back to Mansour to score, only for Reynolds to be penalised for an illegal strip. Once more, the Panthers went left, where the Tigers were waiting for Crichton, before Doueihi was forced to pop a Luai kick dead for yet another Penrith set. Cleary set up Tamou for a bullocking run midway through the tackle count, and took a tackle himself in front of the posts, before Doueihi was forced to concede a second successive dropout off another Luai kick, albeit taking the tackle in goal this time instead of bumping it into touch. Tamou made more metres, and yet again Cleary sent the Steeden left, but this time Luai brought it back in field, and for the first time in a while Penrith headed right, where Naden copped a big hit from Talau that sent his pass skittering unpredictably towards the sideline, where To’o mistimed the bounce and knocked it on. The Tiges now got another restart, and were further galvanised by the memory of seeing Kikau skittled by Clark last time the ball was with Penrith, who conceded a rare penalty after Luai was called offside late in the Tigers’ tackle count.
Brooks now sent a good wraparound pass to Luciano Leilua, and Grant a short ball to Sam McIntyre to smash into Fish beneath the posts, before Eisenhuth compressed these two high intensity plays into a barracking run through Yeoh and Naden to score beside the uprights from short range. There was a brief question of an offside penalty, but the try was cleared, while the Tigers scored one of their most spectacular four-pointers in team history a few minutes later. The play started on the last tackle, when Brooks kicked to the left corner, and Edwards collected the footy only to lose it a moment later, right in front of the posts. Reynolds scooped it up and shifted it across to Thomas Mikaele, who would have scored if not for a trysaver from Luai, before Grant followed with a massive cut-out pass that bounced on the ground in front of Mbye, who swatted it sideways like a tennis ball for Talau to get over the line with Naden on his back. Doueihi didn’t make the extras, but this was still a rousing way for the Tigers to head into the sheds – four points ahead after a torrent of field position, possession and sheer football ingenuity from the Panthers during the first forty.Embed from Getty Images
Penrith came back strong after the break, scoring off the first Tigers try – from Garner – in much the same way they had started the first stanza. This play was pretty simple – a kick from Luai down the left edge, where Crichton and Nofoaluma competed side by side for the football, and Nofa actually tangled his right hand under Crichton’s left hand in the collision, only for the replay to show that he had knocked the ball backwards into Crichton, who regained possession cleanly to slam down a double. The mountain men got a dropout on the restart, and Moses Leota made only their second offload of the night, to Martin, before they made a rare right sweep where Edwards took the tackle after a potential obstruction in field. Cleary bombed to the left edge, but Nofoaluma now outdid Crichton for the first of three epic kick returns from the Tigers, clocking up the run metres to get his men halfway up the park by the second play. Reynolds then almost broke through the line, and tried to offload, but knocked the footy back awkwardly in the process, before Brooks did the same thing while trying to scoop it up – a messy display from the Tigers, who couldn’t do much to prevent Kikau cleaning up the final play, before Nofa put a hand in the ruck a tackle later.
Nevertheless, the Tigers made their very best defensive display of the night a set later, when Martin leaped up to tap a Cleary bomb back to Koroisau, who ducked away from Doueihi and Luciano Leilua to start a left sweep through Luai to Crichton. For a moment, the left winger considered taking on the line himself, but instead made a second kick back in field, where Luciano gathered the football in goal and heroically took on a sea of Penrith jerseys to slam it back over the try line. Still, the Panthers really bunched Wests in for the next set, thanks in part to a slip from Josh Aloiai on the fourth, while Brooks could only manage an average low kick from inside the forty, allowing Edwards to bring the ball back to Penrith’s forty on the first carry. Despite Luciano’s heroic efforts, this was probably the tightest spot for the Tigers, both in terms of exhaustion and field position, since the first stanza – and it got worse when Aloiai dropped a Grant pass cold three tackles after Talau launched himself on a Cleary kick in the right corner, gifting the Panthers the scrum feed from the ten metre line. No surprise that they went left on the first, heading back in field with each tackle until an illegal strip from Eisenhuth set them up for a penalty kick in front of the posts.Embed from Getty Images
Nevertheless, they chose to tap and go, as Tetevano, Fish and Leota all took big runs in front of the posts, only for Doueihi to make the third and best of the Tigers’ terrific kick returns, compensating for conceding two dropouts to Luai by collecting Cleary’s ball and making his way to the Panthers’ thirty, where he was finally brought down by Edwards. Reynolds now offloaded to Grant, who sent the ball out to Garner, but the big second-rower couldn’t find Nofoaluma in support, although Joey Leilua continued the momentum with a big run to the right wing, remaining in the field of play when a Penrith pack tried to drag him into touch. Brooks came up with an aborted grubber on the last, which Luciano Leilua scooped up and carried a metre out from the line, but not without a high shot from Koroisai, who got a hand to his jaw as he was falling to ground, and was put on report for a dangerous tackle. The game now paused as Luciano was taken off the park as Joey took the first carry on the restart. To’o was off with an injury soon after, Luciano failed his HIA, and the Tiges got unlucky when Garner was penalised for crowding despite Mansour overtly playing the ball behind him.
Reynolds leaked a penalty for a second effort a moment later, and it looked like Crichton had put down his first career hat trick on the back of it – the simplest formation of the night, as he simply collected the ball from Cleary, and crashed over, thanks to Nofolauma misreading the play and Joey Leilua storming in a little too quickly on the Penrith halfback, opening up space on his outside for Crichton to get through the line. It was a big let-off for the Tigers, then, when the try was called back for an obstruction, although the mountain men came back big with a field goal from Cleary at the seventy-first minute, and then an extraordinary try from Edwards – and an even more extraordinary try assist from Koroisau – a minute later. Showing Grant who was truly the dominant hooker on the park, Api offered up the best footwork all night to duck under a tackle from Eisenhuth, skip over Michael Chee Kam and propel himself into a monster run up the middle of the field, finding Edwards just where he needed him to send over a bullet pass for the Penrith fullback to slam past the chalk with Talau and Nofoaluma on his back. In a high-octane game, this was the most propulsive play yet – a shot of sheer adrenalin that cemented the Panthers as the alpha footy team.Embed from Getty Images
No surprise that Cleary added the extras from right in front to put his men seven points ahead, while the Tigers got their last major chance about four minutes out, when the footy changed hands about seven times on the last tackle, only for Garner to flick it back to the Panthers, instead of finding the necessary support player on his inside who might have just stormed down the middle of the field to score. A moment later, Reynolds slammed in on Mansour, forcing the footy out of Sauce’s hands, but it took a Captain’s Challenge for the Tigers to get the changeover, packing the scrum forty metres out with three minutes on the clock. Brooks dummied and ran into Kikau on the second, Aloiai took on Fish and Yeoh on the third, and Brooks kicked on the fourth, but Crichton cleaned it up in front of the posts, before Kikau and Joey Leilau exchanged words in goal that saw players from both sides launch in for a fracas. On the replay, you could see that the point of contention was a ridiculous high shot from Joey on Edwards that saw him sent to the bin – a pretty unfortunate way for the Tigers to end the match. They’ll be looking for more joy when they host Souths next week, while Penrith have big footy energy behind them for when they rock up to meet Cronulla.