It was third against twelfth when Penrith hosted the Cowboys for the first game back at Panthers Stadium since lockdown, while North Queensland were even more depleted by the absence of Valentine Holmes at fullback and ongoing absence of Michael Morgan in the halves, making way for Hamison Tabuai-Fidow and Daejarn Asi respectively, with Connelly Lemuele also making his debut at centre. The mountain men started with a strong burst – a restart on the first set, and then six again following a big run from Jarome Luai, before Stephen Crichton applied pressure on Kyle Feldt in goal, forcing the cult winger to pop a Luai kick into touch for the first dropout of the game. James Tamou now took the first hit-up after contributing a big pair of runs during the previous sequence, and James Fisher-Harris and Isaah Yeoh followed suit, before Fish and Apisai Koroisau started the first real passage of second phase play all game. Like clockwork, the backline stepped into focus, as Dylan Edwards drew in defenders on the right edge, and Crichton tapped the high ball back on the left to Luai, who burst through Feldt and Shane Wright for the first four points of the afternoon. Nathan Cleary missed the conversion, but this was still a strong start for Penrith.
Cleary didn’t quite nail a 40/20 kick a minute later either, and the Cowboys got a restart on the next set, while executing some of their best defence so far when Penrith got ball in hand again, putting considerable pressure on Josh Mansour on the second play, only for Wright to concede his second consecutive error. The Panthers were now seven from seven sets, and in prime position once Viliame Kikau poked his nose through the line, but the Cows resumed their defensive push by forcing a mistake from Cleary, although Fish, Koroisau and Liam Martin stormed in on Lemuelu a play later to return the favour. This was a consolidation moment for Penrith, as Crichton tried to come up with the goods for a second time beneath Cleary’s bomb, but this time Esan Marsters was waiting for him, forcing a knock-on to get North Queensland rolling back up the park. Tabuai-Fidow then faced his first big challenge at fullback – a dangerous bounce from Cleary that turned him around right on the line with Naden coming up in support, but he was confident with the take, setting the scene for his best game to date. Not long after, Luai dropped the ball on his left boot, and once again Feldt had to play it in goal, making contact behind the dead ball line after another great chase from Crichton.Embed from Getty Images
To make things worse for North Queensland, Feldt only booted the ball twenty metres, and Koroisau made the most of it, coming close to breaking through the line, but prevented from even getting an offload away by Francis Molo. Moments later, Justin O’Neill helped force an error from Burns that was immediately compounded by an offside penalty from Cleary, although Reece Robson leaked an offside penalty in turn, as Josh McGuire responded with a high hit on Fish on the play after. This gifted the Panthers their fastest acceleration of field position since the opening minutes of the game, as Tamou headed to the sheds after an outstanding stint to make way for Moses Leota, and Fish was fueled by the frustration of McGuire’s tackle into a particularly high-octane period, nearly breaking through three defenders to score beside the posts. Koirisau then skipped and danced at the middle of the field, and Cleary took a run at the line, but couldn’t get through a combined hit by Tom Gilbert and Jason Taumalolo.
Finally, Cleary bombed to the left on the last, where Martin knocked it back, and Leota got an offload away, but was offside downtown, bringing this rapid accumulation of field position to a sudden conclusion. Given the disparity between the two teams, and the strength of the Penrith attack, North Queensland were pretty luck to be only four behind, while the Panthers were struggling a bit to reconfigure after Dean Whare had been taken off the field four minutes in. The mountain men needed Cleary to step up with a big one-man effort – and he delivered with one of his classic David-and-Goliath plays, storming into Coen Hess midfield to force an error. Penrith got rolling out of the scrum feed, with Mansour, Fish and Kikau making big metres through the middle, but Hess got his own back by scooping up a wayward Luai pass before Edwards could get to it. Slowly but surely, the Cowboys were starting to control the game through defence, keeping the Panthers in their own half for the rest of the next set, thanks to a superb kick from Jake Clifford that trapped Dylan Edwards right on the Penrith line. Only a strong run from Burns and an offload from Cleary got the Panthers any headway here, forcing Cleary to boot the ball as long as possible for Feldt, who cleaned it up without any trouble.Embed from Getty Images
Tabuai-Fidow made an especially good run on the next set, starting a period of sustained acceleration for North Queensland. This time around, the set ended with a torpedo bomb from Asi, and then an error from O’Neill, but Reuben Cotter built on his fullback’s momentum a minute later, breaking through the line on the right edge to set up the Cowboys’ best chance all night. They should have shifted left, but instead went for the kick, and Cleary was confident in response, sending the footy ten metres out from the line to Burns, who collected it beautifully before Cotter was pinged for an offside error, bringing this brief period of North Queensland genius to an end. Nevertheless, Tabuai-Fidow finally made good on his previous run, collecting the footy from Cotter, and then breaking away from four increasingly desperate Penrith tackles, before fending off Edwards to put down the first four points for his side in the left corner. This was easily one of the best individual tries of the year, and even more spectacular in slow motion, as the Hammer swerved away from Martin, Cleary (twice), Burns and Edwards, whose tackles got lower and faster each time, meaning that HTF was always on the verge of losing his centre of balance as he picked up himself up each time, only finally falling when he got the footy over the try line.
Full credit goes to Marsters for the original offload to Cotter as well, since this set up a pivotal moment in Tabuai-Fidow’s coming-of-age in the fullback jersey, while also making a resounding statement for the Cows in Valentine Holmes’ absence. With Feldt also missing the sideline conversion, and Cleary shanking a field goal on the cusp of half time, both sides were locked up at 4-4 when they headed to the sheds, although the Cows quickly accelerated again when they returned to the park, thanks to an escorts penalty from Burns. In one of the best North Queensland moments this year, Asi received the Steeden from Gavin Cooper, looked left, dummied and stormed his way through Edwards to score on debut, putting the Cowboys ahead for the first time – six points ahead, since Feldt got the conversion easily. This was a brilliant effort from the Cowboys’ young guns, motivating Cleary to step up and galvanise the mountain men into the energy they needed to appropriate this six point lead as their own.Embed from Getty Images
Cleary’s first big gesture was one of his best kicks of the night – a great bounce that Cleary himself chased down and then popped back into the field of play as he tumbled over the dead ball line, forcing Wright to pop it dead. Penrith started the dropout by accelerating up the left edge, where Crichton reached out his hand for an offload to Mansour, tempting Feldt into a knock-on that could easily have resulted in a Captain’s Challenge, since some camera angles suggested the wiry no. 2 had knocked the ball backwards. Instead, the Cows conceded the scrum feed to the Panthers – or perhaps more accurately to Cleary, who continued this superb period of leadership with a pause, dummy and run in the middle of the field that created an overlap on the right wing, where Edwards sent the Steeden through Burns to Naden for another four points. This whole sequence had been a testament to Cleary’s confidence – and he capped it off with one of the most daring sideline conversions of Round 10, sending the footy sailing through the posts as the sky turned purple behind Panthers Stadium. Once more we were locked up, now at ten-all, as a pair of errors from Hess and Taumaololo was followed by Yeoh taking the field again to give Spencer Leniu a rest.
These two mistakes from the big men proved critical, laying the platform for a further Penrith acceleration that ended with their best left sweep of the game – Koirisau to Luai, and Luai to Tyrone May, who dummied and ran into the line, barging his way into Marsters as he curved a graceful one-handed offload across for Crichton to receive and carry the footy around behind the posts. In its combination of strength and dexterity, this sublime second-phase play from May recalled Joseph Manu and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves’ link-up a few weeks ago – still the gold standard for try assists in 2020 – as Cleary added his second conversion of the night to bring his men to a six-point lead. Both teams went linebreak for linebreak, and then error for error, over the next ten minutes, but the Cowboys couldn’t quite capitalise on their augmented field position to bring the game to golden point, with the Hammer following an illegal strip from Cleary by finding himself offside downtown. For a moment, this looked like it might be a six point for the Panthers – the penultimate linebreak from Luai gave away to an error from Burns – but once again Cleary was the magic ingredient, putting down an individual effort in the last ten seconds to expand their win margin.Embed from Getty Images
These final four points were all class, as Cleary drifted across the face of the ruck, and dummied out on the right edge, before breaking through Asi and McGuire to score the softest try of the night. Cleary had been playing at Origin level for the majority of the game, channeling the Blues energy he would normally be bringing, or hoping to bring, about this time of year, so this was a spectacular way for Penrith to close out the match. They’d started strong and finished strong, arriving at the top of the ladder with this win, creating a worrying prospect for the Titans when they meet them at the same time next Sunday. On the other side of the Steeden, this was still a very respectable performance from the Cowboys, who have a lot to feel good about when it comes to their newer players, so you can be sure that they’ll be keen to balance their veterans and young guns when they meet a replenished Sea Eagles outfit back in Townsville next Friday night.