No team have conceded fewer points in 2020 than Penrith, who had a fast start when they met the Sea Eagles at Brookvale on Saturday night. Addin Fonua-Blake made the first error, Penrith got a restart, and Charlie Staines and Jorge Taufua both got hands to the football at the end of the set. For a moment it looked like Staines might score his fifth try in eighty-one minutes of first-grade football, but the replay showed that he had knocked the ball on before planting it down in goal a second later. Now it was Manly’s turn to get some rapid field position, following a strip from Stephen Crichton, as Danny Levi got a glimpse of the line on play four, and Brendan Elliot hung suspended over the line on the last, but the Penrith goal line defence remained strong. Manly got their next big chance when Brent Naden offloaded on the ground back to Jorge Taufua, but the big winger knocked it on, while Nathan Cleary slid along the ground to clean it up anyway – a testament to Penrith’s capacity to cleanly and clinically compensate for unexpected variables. Elliot was safe under the next Cleary bomb, but Dylan Walker sacrificed the set with a marginal obstruction on Liam Martin, and Penrith chose to tap and go. The forwards stuck around the posts for the first two tackles before Staines got his try, picking up a bouncing ball fifteen metres out, and pivoting back inside when he saw Walker approaching.
From there, he sliced past Sironen, squeezing his way between the two defenders, and relying on momentum to carry him over in the corner for his fifth try in eighty-five minutes of football. In a rare slump for the Panthers during this game, Cleary didn’t get the conversion, and sent the next kick too long, giving Manly seven tackles to steady the ship, marking the start of the most sustained period of field position for either team so far. Marty Taupau got them rolling with a big hit on Viliame Kikau, and Daly Cherry-Evans stepped up on the fourth with three big plays – finding space for Reuben Garrick on the right edge, a dangerous grubber ten out that Apisai Koroisau knocked on, and then a final grubber that Cleary was forced to ground in goal for the first dropout of the night. Cleary sent a soaring ball off the right boot back to the Sea Eagles’ thirty, and the set started well but ended weirdly, with a pass from Lachlan Croker to Brad Parker, who ricocheted it across to Cleary, who in turn caught it on the full but flicked it back to Brent Naden in goal. Still, the Panthers recovered, and Cleary recovered, capping off the next set with his highest bomb so far, although Elliot remained safe beneath it. DCE made the most of a Taupau offload three plays later, almost sending Sironen through the line midway up the park and Elliot built on that energy with a searching run across the face of the ruck, but Croker quashed their rhythm with an overlong kick.Embed from Getty Images
The visitors got a restart at the end of the tackle count, and then another, as James Tamou laid the platform for Isaah Yeoh to slam over beneath the posts for the next Penrith try. As with Staines, Yeoh was checked for a double or even triple movement, and once again the try was approved, thanks to a spectacular slow motion sequence that showed how athletically he had mined Fonua-Blaker as a fulcrum, pivoting over him to score on his stomach while never losing the original momentum of his run. This time Cleary added the extras, putting the Panthers ten ahead, while Walker was taken off with a foot injury sustained during his first tackle of the night. Yeoh also left the park for an HIA after copping the left shoulder of Danny Levi in the forehead, but the Panthers still accelerated, as Elliot and Martin clashed under a Cleary bomb, for what would have probably been deemed an aerial tackle if Martin hadn’t been playing the ball so clearly the whole time. Penrith got a set restart, as DCE made the best defensive Manly effort to prevent Kikau from scoring, halting him at the line one-on-one, and then somersaulting over him to prevent him getting the ball to ground. Unflappable, Cleary floated a wide pass across to Staines a few seconds later, as the Forbes export put down his sixth try in the NRL – and arguably his most spectacular, since there was no doubt we were witnessing the birth of a great winger as he contorted his entire body above the sideline, keeping his right boot off the turf while effectively kicking his torso into open space.
This incredible display would see Staines leave the park soon after with a mild hamstring injury, but for now it felt like he could score tries forever, averaging a four-pointer for every seventeen minutes he’d played in first grade. Cleary clinched it with a sublime sideline conversion, followed up with a 20-40, regathered his next kick after it ricocheted off DCE, and then set up the next try with a well-timed pass to Kikau, who offloaded through Moses Suli and DCE for Jarome Luai to assist Crichton on the wing. Cleary was well and truly winning the battle of the Origin fullbacks, and DCE looked frantic with his men as his rival no. 7 set up the conversion – the right response, since Penrith were playing near-perfect footy here, as yet another Cleary conversion bent back through the posts, and Yeoh prepared to enter the park a few minutes before Parker was taken off for an HIA from copping Martin’s right boot in the head. Manly got their next chance off an error from Crichton under a DCE bomb, and Daly stepped up again here, nearly putting Sironen over on the right edge, and then setting up Trbojevic with a virtually identical pass on the very next play, sending the only Turbo on the park twisting and spinning through James Fisher-Harris to get the footy down before Cleary could get a hand beneath it. For a moment it looked like the Sea Eagles might consolidate when they got their first restart a minute out from the siren, but it ended with Naden intercepting a Croker pass and running ninety before DCE brought him down with the best chase of the night.Embed from Getty Images
This was exactly the leadership Manly needed at this moment, but it all came undone when Trbojevic was called offside a second later, and so Cleary added a penalty kick on the stroke of half time to bring the Panthers quadruple Manly at 6-24. The Sea Eagles made some headway when they returned from the sheds, thanks to a dangerous tackle from Zane Tetevano, and some good ball handling from Suli, who popped the footy back inside just before being dragged into touch, tempting Crichton into the first knock-on of the night for Penrith. Yet the Manly scrum feed came to nothing when Elliot knocked on while looking to catch-and-pass a pretty gettable ball from Trbojevic, giving Penrith the scrum feed in turn. Cleary’s boot now set up the first of two successive dropouts with a sublime grubber to the left corner, where Mansour, Crichton and Yeoh dragged Garrick back in goal, before Leota made the best front row run of the night to start the repeat set, putting his head down, barging through the line and almost breaking through the Manly defence. Cleary slowed the play down on the fourth, confounding the Sea Eagles with a right side play to Corey Waddell, before opting for a kick to the posts that Suli cleaned up a metre out, where once again three Panthers surged in to secure the dropout, marking the most plosive accumulation of field position since Manly’s sequence of repeat sets during the opening quarter.
Everything now came together for Cleary, who in one spectacular play grubbered for himself, sending the ball back behind the posts to set up his easiest conversion of the night – a Cooper Cronk-like moment of synergy, and the apex of his effortless brilliance with the boot during 2020. With 28/30 completions, Penrith were playing like a team at the top of the ladeer, meaning DCE needed to bring something special, if only to prevent a landslide of points too catastrophic for his men to recover their composure for next week’s game. He delivered with the best 40/20 in weeks – a low, rapid effort that barely got a metre and a half above the ground before skidding over the sideline – and Manly compounded their advantage with the scrum feed after Naden knocked a Waddell pass back into Waddell’s chest. In the direst moment of the match, however, Sean Keppie lost the Steeden out of the scrum, and appealed to vociferously to DCE for a Captain’s Challenge, only for the Bunker to show that he had lost the footy clean with no interference as Yeoh tumbled over on top. Still, Keppie got some closure when James Fisher-Harris coughed up the ball a few plays later, while Manly were momentarily able to put this low point behind them with their second and last try – a one-man effort from Jorge Taufua, who somehow made a wobbly crossfield kick from DCE look like a pinpoint effort when he scooped it up to score in the corner. This felt like Manly self-correcting, as DCE barked out orders for his men to make it a back-to-back effort as Garrick slotted through the conversion to put twelve on the board.Embed from Getty Images
Sure enough, the Sea Eagles had their best defensive set next time Penrith got the football, forcing Cleary to shape to kick from within his own thirty, although even here the Blues halfback managed to squeeze in an extra five metres, and turn the play to his advantage with a chip-and-chase that very nearly disheveled the Manly backline. Garrick tried to follow DCE with another 40/20 early in the tackle count, but found the Brookvale surface defying him, while the Panthers got back into first gear when Taupau offloaded straight to Crichton a set later. Luai forced the next dropout with a kick beneath the posts, and the Panthers scored their next try pretty effortlessly, with a right sweep that was almost a carbon copy of Cleary’s assist for Staines in the first half, except this time it was Tyrone May sending Naden across in the corner. They didn’t have to wait long for their last try either, as the ball moved through Tamou, Cleary and then Luai, who pivoted off the left boot, took it back inside, ran across the face of the ruck, and shot a bullet pass for Koroisau, who slammed into the Steeden at speed and got past Croker to score beneath the posts. The Sea Eagles took their last blow when Sironen left the field with a right knee complaint, while the Panthers stayed at 42 despite a late linebreak from Mansour, and should feel proud of this spectacular game – and pumped for a barnstorming performance when they take on the Raiders in Penrith for the same slot next Saturday night.