The Panthers made it eight in a row when they took on the Raiders at home on Saturday night, continuing the airbrushed perfectionism of last week’s game against the Sea Eagles despite losing Charlie Staines’ prodigious tryscoring abilities on the wing. That said, they didn’t get a hand to the football for the first six minutes, since Canberra started with an incredible early surge of field position, redolent of the Warriors’ early surge the night before, thanks to Jack Wighton making the fifth 40/20 of his career on their very first set. The Panthers let the next kick bounce, and Josh Papalii scooped it up for a harbour bridge pass out to Nick Cotric, who made a second kick to trap Jarome Luai in goal for the first dropout of the night. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad did well to stay in field on the second play, while Brent Naden conceded even more possession with a coat hanger tackle on Jarrod Croker on the other side of the park. George Williams now opted to kick on the second, and this time Josh Mansour was trapped in goal, while the Raiders got the first restart after Tyrone May held too long on play two, but Nathan Cleary was too good for Wighton’s boot on the last, managing to get the footy a metre back in play to cap off an amazing defensive effort that was quickly compounded by a dangerous tackle from Elliott Whitehead on Naden – the first of several personal rivalries that would make this game especially exciting to watch.
The next rivalry came a play later, when John Bateman knocked the ball out of Viliame Kikau’s hands for what was deemed a loose carry. Bateman slung some banter Kikau’s way, but he stayed patient, as did the Panthers, who decided not to waste their Captain’s Challenge – a great decision, since Kikau would capitalise off a Bateman error a mere minute later. Meanwhile, the Panthers were pumped from their opening defensive stint, as Cleary now spearheaded a four-man effort to drive Croker over the sideline on the very first play, resulting in the first incomplete set of the night as the ten minute mark approached. They got a penalty a moment later, after Bateman was pinged for working on the ground, and Cleary drifted across field a few tackles after, dummying to feign a pass to James Fisher-Harris on his left, only for Kikau to storm in from the outside to slam down the first four points, and the 4000th try for the Penrith Panthers, while Cleary became the youngest player since Graham Eadie in 1976 to reach 700 career points when he booted through the extras. The Panthers had scored the first six points after not getting a hand to the football for the first six minutes – a damning shift for Canberra, who lost more momentum when Nick Cotric slipped two tackles into their next set, Hudson Young was contained on the fourth play, and Wighton’s kick posed no real challenges to Tyrone May, before CNK only just gathered Cleary’s next bomb, collecting it on his back as Brent Naden charged over him.Embed from Getty Images
However, CNK lost the next one, and Liam Martin smashed over a play later – as effortlessly as Kikau, but on the other side of the posts, where he collected a short ball from Apisai Koroisau to put down another four points. Penrith are unbeaten for all six games in 2020 when they’ve scored the first try, so they felt even more imposing now, as Cleary’s second conversion made it a twelve point lead. They’d also only conceded one try in the first quarter of their games in 2020 so far, and looked set to continue that trend now – an even more extraordinary achievement in that they only got their first touch of the footy six minutes in, meaning that they’d effectively scored a point per minute during the period when they’d enjoyed possession. James Tamou now put in a thundering run on the restart, and Naden followed with the second mistake of the night for Penrith, marking the first real opportunity for the Raiders since the opening minutes, but Papalii mistimed the pass on play two, with the result that Bateman coughed it up and gave it straight back to Luai, who got the Panthers rolling again as the second quarter arrived. CNK followed with his worst take under the high ball all season, leaping up in the air but not even attempting to get a hand to it, and so leaving it to bounce in goal where Cotric only just managed to boot it into touch as Stephen Crichton converged on him. You had to wonder whether Charnze was doubting his power after his finger injury, but whatever the reason this fullback error wasn’t quite as damaging as the last, since Fish put down the ball off a hard shot from Papalii.
This was probably the best defensive moment so far for the Raiders, who were looking utterly exhausted, so Joseph Tapine was a welcome addition for the field after Dunamis Lui subbed off, as the game now settled into the most even rhythm so far, as both teams went set for set for a sustained arm wrestle. Even then, however, Canberra couldn’t score, only notching up a pair of near-tries to show for their efforts after this brief lull for Penrith. The first came almost immediately, when the high ball ricocheted off Croker’s head as Rapana piggy-backed over him to pop it over to Whitehead, but the replay showed that the cult winger had been offside. Ten minutes out from the end, Papalii looked sure to smash over at cross range off a good Williams pass, but somehow Koroisau, Martin and Aekins managed to hold up the biggest bopper on the park, before Cleary played at Williams’ final kick, setting up Koroisau to clean it up with no troubles. Conversely, Zane Tetevano made an immediate impact off the bench, making the biggest hit so far on Curtis Scott, before Mansour recovered a Williams bomb and broke through the line to shift it out to Crichton, who did well to remain in play after a tough tackle from Williams right on the sideline. The Panthers now spread the footy out to the right to lay the platform for Moses Leota’s next run up the middle, and looked like they wereabout to break through the line on every single play, culminating with a Cleary kick on the last that Kikau and Bateman converged on in goal.Embed from Getty Images
The Englishman just managed to pop the Steeden into touch before Big Billy put down a double, but the Panthers scored on the very next set, as Mansour executed a truly epic run from twenty-five metres out, collecting a cut-out pass from Luai and barging into four Canberra defenders until he was held up right over the line. This was peak Mansour, so no surprise that the Panthers were galvanised even further now, gaining a fresh restart two tackles later, before Cleary considered repeating his try assist to Kikau on the first play, but was cleaned up, and then tried to send Crichton across on the third, an option that the Raiders also scrambled to shut down. Finally, Luai built on Cleary’s momentum, booting through a grubber on the last that Crichton and Cotric competed for in goal, with the Penrith winger coming off the victor as the rain started to stream down like a special effect put on for the Panthers’ benefit. Once again Cleary added the extras, shooting the scoreline to 18-0 for the mountain men, who were playing, as they did last week, like a team totally relishing their deserved position at the top of the NRL ladder. They were now in a full-blown state of flow, and felt like they could have scored indefinitely on this footy high, but only got one more down, since there were only three minutes to go until the half time siren. Two tackles into the restart they got another six again, and Cleary then ended with possibly his most beautifully weighted kick, forcing CNK to bump it into touch for yet another dropout.
In the final minute, the Panthers made a clinical right sweep, as Cleary got around the defence and popped the footy across to Caleb Aekins for his second try assist of the year – a cut-out pass to Naden, who jumped off the right foot and put the Steeden down with his left hand, getting to his feet calmly off the same movement, as CNK and Rapana tumbled chaotically into touch, like a vision of supreme order amidst scrambling chaos. Perhaps this kind of football perfection can only exist for forty minutes, or in a heightened state of flow, since this would be the last try that the Panthers scored all night, with only a pair of penalty goals getting them back on the board as the Raiders put down two tries over the back forty. That said, the second half started pretty disastrously for the green machine, as Penrith got six again off a ruck infringement from Wighton, and Rapana coughed up the first bomb from Cleary a moment later. Nevertheless, Cleary lost the ball a play after – he was lucky not to have it called a knock-on – and Koroisau knocked it forward a tackle after that, opening up Wighton for a breakway run and a twenty-metre gain, only for Siliva Havilli to lose it along the ground on the third play. This marked the start of the messiest period of the game, as both sides went error-for-error, and the Raiders continued to exhaust every strategy in their playbook, crying out for one of their key men to step up and make a big individual effort to get them back in the contest.Embed from Getty Images
That man was CNK, who made up for an inconsistent night under the high ball by twisting and spinning five metres out, and then carrying Tetevano, Martin, Koroisau and finally Aekins with him over the line – exactly the David-and-Goliath effort that the Raiders needed to change up the momentum of the match, especially since Siliva Havili was now taken off the park with an arm injury, replaced by Tom Starling, while Corey Harawira-Naera trotted on for his second appearance in Canberra colours to replace Papalii a moment later. It was a sign of respect that Penrith opted to take the two when Croker was called offside fifteen minutes in, and this respect seemed to motivate the Raiders, since they got their next almost-try shortly after, when Williams received the Steeden twenty-five metres out, and outpaced Luai and Aekins to cross over the line, only for Harawira-Naera to obstruct Kikau after trying in vain to bring himself back from the play. Cleary made an enormous defensive effort on the restart, wrapping himself around Rapana for a low tackle that eventually sent the Canberra no. 2 over the sideline, as Martin came in to help out his halfback with the push. The Raiders sent it upstairs for a Captain’s Challenge, and while the replay showed that Rapana had clearly been in touch when he lobbed the footy back in field, the Bunker deemed that Martin had been guilty of a second effort – the first time that a Challenge has uncovered an error other than the one that was being challenged in the first place.
Buoyed up by that unexpected decision, the Raiders recapitulated their opening burst of field position in miniature, moving through a set restart, a penalty for Naden (dangerous tackle), a May mistake, and then another Naden penalty (not square at marker) before CNK received the footy and came down a metre out from the line, relying on the combined momentum of May and Cleary to carry him across the slippery surface and over the chalk – a mammoth gesture of fullback leadership given CNK’s struggles under the high ball during the first forty. Still, the Penrith defence stayed strong for the remainder of the match – most spectacularly when the Raiders got their fourth and final almost-try, off a great kick from Wighton that Croker collected and kicked for a second time, only for Mansour to repeat CNK’s superb slide to regather the footy right on the try line. Tamou dropped the ball on the next play, but the Raiders followed with their most disorganized set of the night, as the match settled back into an arm wrestle for the final minutes, until Cleary booted through a second penalty kick after a pair of Canberra errors in the last minute – a dangerous tackle from Bateman, who was put on report, and then undue pressure from Papalii. Despite not scoring a single try in the second half, this was still a scintillating game from the Panthers, who are now playing at their very peak, making next week’s game against a resurgent Warriors outfit a truly exciting prospect, while the Raiders will be looking to come back big when they take on a struggling Brisbane pack at GIO next Saturday night.