The Panthers had incredible momentum when they met the Warriors at Central Coast on Friday night – they’d won eight in a row, they hadn’t conceded first quarter points since their Round 1 game against the Roosters, and they’d just completed two weeks of near-perfect football to secure their position at the top of the NRL ladder. Dylan Edwards was also back on the park, and got the first penalty after tempting an offside play from Roger Tuivasa-Sheck beneath his first high ball since returning to footy.
Penrith got a restart on the second carry, and Nathan Cleary chipped on the last to trap George Jennings in goal for the first dropout three minutes in. From there, Edwards caught it, James Tamou took the first hit-up, Penrith got another restart, Viliame Kikau got an offload away despite a big tackle from Patrick Herbert on the left edge, and Cleary forced a second successive dropout, with a grubber that Kodi Nikorima had to clean up behind the posts. Once again, Tamou took the first tackle, as the Panthers settled into the most clinical accumulation of field position for any team this year.
They seemed destined to score here, and while Jarome Luai’s kick ricocheted off the defence and back into the hands of RTS, the Panthers got another set after Nikorima knocked on, and the Warriors declined a Captain’s Challenge, ceding the scrum feed to Penrith with only 21% of possession to their name. The big men laid the platform on the first four tackle, and Cleary now got his third dropout, as RTS collected the footy right on the try line but was bumped back into goal by a killer hit from Kikau.Embed from Getty Images
The Warriors had only enjoyed one set as the ten minute mark approached, while Penrith were so assured in their dominance that they barely seemed to be trying – hardly breaking a sweat, just linking and syncing like a well-oiled football machine. Edwards’ next kick ricocheted off the right side just as Luai’s had off the left, with Eliesa Katoa collecting it as RTS did before him, but again the penalty went Penrith’s way, as Adam Pompey was called offside within the ten.
Surely the Panthers had to score here – and score they did, off a leisurely right sweep on the second that ended with Cleary sailing a wide ball out to Brett Naden on the wing. Weirdly, Cleary sent the conversion attempt across the front of the posts, but the mountain men had still scored the first try in thirteen straight games, and showed no signs of slowing down on the restart, as Api Koroisau got down low on the fourth and almost ducked beneath the ruck, before RTS caught Cleary’s kick on the full and the Warriors got their second set of the game twelve and a half minutes in.
They got a restart midway through the set, reaching the Panthers’ ten by the next play, but it all ground to a halt when Nikorima tried to catch-and-pass from Chanel Harris-Tevita to Jennings, but knocked it forward instead. Their next chance came with the first Penrith penalty of the night – an escort from Cleary after RTS left the high ball bounce – but they couldn’t challenge Edwards much with the kick, while Nikorima conceded a restart early in the next tackle count, getting Penrith their best acceleration since Naden’s try.Embed from Getty Images
Four tackles later, Jazz Tevaga was called offside, and a Yeoh offload to Cleary set the platform for James Fisher-Harris to slam over beside the posts, where Tevaga culminated a terrific defensive quarter from New Zealand with a low tackle that spun Fish around just long enough for Tohu Harris to storm in and get his hand beneath the Steeden. The rain really started to stream down as the Panthers made it thirteen straight games without conceding a first quarter try – the first time this has happened in the modern NRL era – after completing 15/15 in slippery conditions. For the first time, however, Cleary’s boot faltered, and his next kick went a little too long, granting the Warriors seven tackles to work their way out of their own end.
Four plays later, Nikorima broke through the line on the right side, lobbing an offload out to Isaiah Papali’i just as Luai got him to ground, and then kicking on the next play for perhaps the most extraordinary grubber of the match – a rapid effort that slowed and stopped immediately after careening off the left upright, coming completely still half a metre out from the line, right beneath the crossbar. This shift from high-speed action to a still Steeden was sublime to behold, as Liam Martin and Harris-Tevita converged on it, and the Warriors wasted their Captain’s Challenge trying to contest their halfback’s knock-on.
The next try came with an even more spectacular sequence, as a Harris-Tevita kick ricocheted off the defence and sat up for Lachlan Burr, who collected it and promptly passed to Stephen Crichton. From there, the wiry winger palmed off RTS and drew in two defenders, laying the platform for Koroisai to crash over a play late out of dummy half, when he ducked his head and butted off Burr before getting through Harris-Tevita and Karl Lawton to score beside the posts.Embed from Getty Images
Cleary added the extras to give his men a ten point lead, and almost got through the line ten minutes out from the end, before Luai secured the fifth dropout of the game, and Penrith started to flashback to their superb opening ten minutes with a restart on the first tackle. Tyrone May carried two defenders to the ten metre line, Cleary ran ten metres across the ruck before straightening, May fumbled and regathered the footy, and Cleary grubbered on the last, taking us to dropout number six – and a staggering 68% of possession off 23/23 completed sets – as RTS was forced to put the football down.
There was a lengthy pause after Nikorima got his head trampled by Luai, and the Warriors took advantage of the breathing space with a surprisingly short dropout that May coughed up on play one, before proceeding into their best bout of field position for some time, thanks to a penalty from Koroisau, for not being square at marker, and then a ruck infringement from Moses Leota. Still, the Panthers regathered as soon as Papali’i lost the footy, settling into a sublime right sweep that ended with Mansour receiving a no-look pass from Crichton, who stared ahead so intently that Herbert was forced to commit,
Sauce responded with a beautiful grubber at speed off the right boot, setting up Edward to land on the Steeden for a try in his return match, bringing Penrith to a 0-16 lead when Cleary slotted through the extras. They came a second away from keeping New Zealand scoreless during the first forty, but RTS climbed above Kikau under the last bomb, cradling the footy in his left hand, and bringing in his right for the slightest touch of support, before getting it down for the softest try so far, on the stoke of half time.Embed from Getty Images
Full credit goes to Harris-Tevita for the clutch kick – and to Herbert for the conversion that narrowed the deficit to eight as both teams headed to the sheds. New Zealand got the first dropout four minutes back, when Lawton threaded the footy through Koroisau’s legs, and while Daniel Alvaro put down a Harris-Tevita pass as the rain continued to intensify, this marked the start of a subtle Warriors resurgence.
Penrith got two more dropouts soon after, the first when Kikau offloaded right on the line, and the second when a Cleary kicked landed about two metres out, where Nikorima slid to the ground to catch it, but instead saw the Steeden bounce through his arms as Luai lunged at it and RTS desperately bashed it into touch. This chip kick is arguably the most important addition to Cleary’s repertoire in 2020, so it was disappointing to see Luai botch the kick at the end of the dropout, never quite getting ball to boot, in yet another tribute to the Warriors’ gutsy goal line defence.
The first real Penrith slump so far now followed, thanks to an escorts penalty from Martin, a ruck infringement from Kikau, and finally an error from Cleary himself – just the demystification that New Zealand needed to put down their next try, and narrow the deficit to a single try. They scored immediately out of the scrum, opting for a right sweep that ended with Hiku holding up Mansour just long enough for Herbert to get on his outside, where he slightly fumbled the footy after it arrived just behind his left air, and then regathered and grounded it – a superb effort in such slippery conditions.Embed from Getty Images
Herbert added the extras, and Cleary added two more when Adam Blair was called offside a minute later – a serious sign of respect for a severely depleted New Zealand outfit whose resilience was propelling them back into the game. Both sides now went error for error, until May mirrored ager collecting a Cleary offload, grubbering beneath the posts and forcing Papali’i to take the ball dead five metres deep. Cleary came close to compensating for his error with an assist for Kikau, but not a try assist, since the play was called back due an obstruction from Leota.
Finally, as the last ten minutes approached, the Panthers got had two successful Captain’s Challenges to galvanise them into one last try – the first when the Bunker confirmed that a supposed Edwards knock-on had actually been accidentally booted out of his grasp by Papali’i, and the second when the Bunker confirmed that Hiku had caught the footy with his boot a centimeter above the try line, turning a seven tackle set for New Zealand into a fresh attacking opportunity for Penrith.
This last challenge was one of the best of 2020, so it was disappointing that Penrith never got their last try. While Leota and Tamou made barnstorming runs on the next set, May was trapped on the last, pausing before kicking the footy to heavy, as New Zealand got their seven tackles after all. The Warriors got a bit of bite back when Harris-Tevita made the biggest tackle of the night on Martin, skittling the big second-rower out of his path amidst a spectacular spray of water in the wet, while Cleary continually delayed the field goal that would have won his men the game if New Zealand had scored an unconverted try – an unusual piece of game management that was never really tested, since neither team would score any more points before the final siren rang out.Embed from Getty Images
No doubt that this was a spectacular match for Penrith, especially during the first forty, bringing the Panthers to their first nine-game winning streak in club history. Yet while the same perfection was evident at their peak here as in their last two games, they experienced the same slight slump as in last week’s game against the Raiders, thanks in part to a really courageous Warriors outfit. New Zealand fans and players should feel proud, then, of the resilience they brought to this game, since they’ve used their own particular challenges of the pandemic to grow stronger and surer as a team, making next week’s match against the Bulldogs a tantalising prospect.