The Panthers were on a ten-game winning streak – already a club record – when they hosted the Tigers on Saturday night, and were looking to win seven games at home for the first time in the modern NRL. They were also three points away from the top of the ladder, and had the minor premiership wrapped up if they could maintain consistency over the next few weeks – although the Tiges had handed them one of their biggest scares of the year in Round 8, when the match remained 12-all at the 70th minute.
That said, they’d still won six of their last seven games against the Tigers, who hadn’t won at Penrith since 2013. In the end, the visitors only managed a single try, but did well, under the circumstances, to keep Penrith to thirty, forcing the mountain men into a series of mini-pointscoring droughts that confounded them more than any team over the last couple of matches, holding them off the scoreboard until the half hour mark.
In part that was due to the absence of Viliame Kikau, who had been suspended for a dangerous shot on Braydon Trindall three minutes out from the end of last week’s game against the Sharks, along with Api Koroisau, who was still nursing a calf injury. That said, Brian To’o was back from an ankle syndesmosis, while, on the other side of the Steeden, Harry Grant had returned from a knee injury, Josh Reynolds was cut from the reserves, and both props were dropped, with Eisenhuth and Mikaele starting.
James Tamou opened with a strong run, and his team got a scrum right away when Luciano Leilua stripped the footy from Mitch Kenny, but knocked on in the process. Still, Nathan Cleary ended with a fairly standard chip to the corner, where Luke Brooks managed to shield Moses Mbye as he collected in on the full, without conceding an escorts. Benji Marshall was forced to kick within the Tigers’ thirty, however, and Josh Mansour made good metres up the left edge, on his first touch of the football.
Tamou had been all over the park during these opening minutes, and took another carry on the fourth here. While Cleary got a better kick this time around, Adam Doueihi followed Moses with a pretty confident take, and the Tigers did better to neutralise the chase as well, although Brooks was still forced to kick under pressure, and in his own end, after Jarome Luai and Stephen Crichton converged for the first really big hit of the night, dragging Luke Garner a good two or three metres across field.
Three tackles into the next set, Luai dummied left, and tried to break through the line, but the Tigers were waiting for him, while Doueihi came up with a third terrific take under a Cleary high ball. This was a courageous collect from the ex-Rabbitoh, and for a moment it seemed to cost him a shoulder injury, but he got to his feet after a few minutes, giving the Panthers time to get their breath and keep the Tigers on their own line, after David Nofoaluma was forced to gather a bouncing ball right in the corner.
Brooks had to boot through his biggest kick yet, from inside the twenty, and To’o responded with a massive return, galvanising Penrith into their toughest and fastest set so far. Dylan Edwards over-extended, though, fumbling the play-the-ball to grant the visitors their first real field position of the night – and their first period in the Panthers’ half of the park. They made the most of it, too, as Benji opted for an early kick that Nofa collected silkily, curving around behind the posts to score untouched.
Nofoaluma was now equal top tryscorer with Alex Johnston, and Mbye was always going to get the conversion after Nofa set it up right in front. The Tigers had scored in their first stint down Penrith’s end, while the Panthers had conceded points in the first ten minutes for the first time all year. Yet this would be the last time the visitors scored all night, as the mountain men proceeded to rack up thirty unanswered points over the next seventy minutes, albeit not for another twenty, at the half hour mark.
For a moment it looked like the Tigers might effectively score back-to-back, since while Penrith survived the restart, Mansour put down a poor pass from Luai, leaving the ball open for Benji to almost toe it through the line with no Edwards in sight. Wests lost momentum on the second tackle, however, with a poor pass from Grant, and while Benji managed to scoop it up, the Panthers had time to get their defence in order and contain two wing plays that both looked like they might produce a second try.
The first was a harbour bridge ball from Benji to Nofoaluma on the very next tackle, and the second a bullet ball from Doueihi to Tommy Talau on the other wing. Talau actually got on the outside of To’o, but To’o wasn’t going to let him through, executing a desperate legs tackle as Talau slammed the ball to ground. It came down just short, and the Panthers marched back down the field again, as tensions flared at the end of the next set, when Brent Naden gave Doueihi a rub as he collected another high ball.
The Tiges got their first restart early in the next set, off a ruck error from Luai, and Doueihi smashed into Naden a play later, before Luai conceded the first penalty with a high hit on Joey Leilua. This should have been consolidation time for the visitors, so it was a big turnaround when Mansour, Crichton and May combined to drag Doueihi over the sideline, from ten metres in field, on the very first tackle, in the first big pack effort of the game, only for Naden to also loose the footy on play one.
This would have probably opened up space for a second Tigers try if the Panthers hadn’t successfully challenged it to prove that Brooks had raked the ball out of Naden’s grasp. A Penrith try here would have cemented this shift in momentum, but the visitors stayed strong, containing Cleary, Edwards, Martin, and then Cleary again, after Mbye tapped the high ball to them. For a moment they shaped for a team try at close range, but Doueihi showed he could collect low too, with a great take on To’o’s final grubber.
Mansour was all wrapped up on the first tackle of the next Penrith set, and Edwards found it hard to make metres too, but Cleary compensated with an enormous kick that Doueihi only just brought back into the field of play. The Tigers looked set to spend most of this set in their twenty, or even their ten, so it was a big letdown for Penrith when Kenny tackled Alex Twal after the call of held. Yet the Tiges couldn’t do much with the ball, while Brooks didn’t really deliver much with his crossfield bomb either.
This proved to be a rallying-point for the Panthers, who got two restarts next time they had ball in hand. Cleary consolidated with the best grubber of the night, forcing Nofa to pop it into touch for the first dropout of the match. The Tigers survived their first big defensive test, thanks to a low tackle from Mbye to prevent To’o crossing over on the fifth, before Nofa caught Cleary’s crossfield chip on the full, right on the line.
Nevertheless, tempers flared soon after, when Cleary came in for a low tackle on Mbye, only to get a kick in the face for his troubles. Penrith channeled this aggression for their next attacking opportunity, making the most of a rare Doueihi miss – beneath a Luai bomb – to really barge into the defence for the first time all night. First, Zane Tetevano slammed towards the posts, and then Luai followed in his footsteps, receiving the ball at the ten, fending off Garner, and scoring through Grant, Eisenhuth and Elijah Taylor.
This was tough stuff from Luai, who hung suspended in the air for a good three seconds before reaching his arm out of this maelstrom of Wests Tigers defenders, and Tetevano continued his momentum on the restart, with another hard run up the middle third of the park. To’o and Moses Leota continued his momentum through the ruck, before Cleary kicked on the third to focus the play down the other end of the field. Luai looked in to play out a tackle later, and sent May through the line for what looked a sure try.
Instead, Doueihi got there just in time, and cleaned up a Cleary grubber right on the line, more than compensating for his dropped high ball a few minutes before. Yet Penrith had too much speed now, and scored off their next burst of field position – a marginal high hit from Benji on Luai, after Joey Leilua got away with a shoulder charge earlier in the tackle count. Leota continued his previous run up the middle, and Cleary and Luai grew restless, shifting the footy from side to side, searching for opportunities.
Over this set, the Panthers settled into their strongest combination of hard runs from the big men and creativity from the halves, culminating with a Martin four-pointer on the right edge of the park. No surprise that Cleary came up with the assist, collecting a wide ball from Luai, and timing the short ball perfectly for his no. 12 to dance over a low tackle from Brooks, who had cleaned up Edwards on the same side of the park a couple of plays before, but couldn’t prevent the try here.
Cleary added the first sideline conversion of the night, and then a penalty kick right on the stroke of half time, when Doueihi was pinged and binned for a professional foul, in a desperate effort to make up for a poor pass to Talau that got Penrith field position in the first place. This was a pretty dire end to the first stanza, especially after Doueihi’s security under the high ball during the first part of the match, and yet the Panthers wouldn’t manage to capitalise on the Wests Tigers’ fullback’s absence from the park.
In fact, the visitors largely dominated the first nine minutes back from the break, thanks to a pair of strong opening bombs from Brooks, a sequence of Penrith errors, and a linebreak from Nofoaluama. Only a failed Captain’s Challenge really marred this Tigers sequence, so the difference lay in how quickly and efficiently the Panthers could consolidate when the field position swung back their way at the fiftieth minute, as a Benji error and pair of restarts off Eisenhuth and McIntyre set them up to score.
This was arguably the most elegant try of the night – a perfectly-pitched parabola ball from May to To’o out on the right wing. Despite the width and height of the pass, To’o was unable to cross over untouched, but the try was all the more spectacular for that, as he bumped off Talau and accelerated into Brooks, who conceded his second straight try as To’o slammed the footy down more decisively than any player all night – like a conversation-stopper, a unarguable assertion of Penrith’s total dominance in 2020.
As a result, his entire team stormed into to congratulate him, with Luai almost crowd-surfing over the top – a snapshot of the enormous ethos and team spirit that has sustained the Panthers over this record-breaking season. Cleary missed the conversion from the sideline, but the mountain men were still triple the Tigers, who were yet to have a tackle in Penrith’s twenty during this second half, and started to decelerate now, as the mountain men proved why their defence has been at its best since 1991.
To be fair, Shawn Blore made an instant impact, helping Luciano Leilua with some superb second-phase play, but the Panthers finally found their groove in the last ten minutes, looking ahead to next week’s opener against the Broncos. Spencer Leniu smashed through a sea of Tigers defenders eleven minutes out from the siren, and while he got the ball down, he made a double movement in the process. Still, Kenny got Penrith rolling pretty quickly with a fifteen-metre run next time he had ball in hand.
On the other side of the Steeden, the Tigers culminated a pretty poor second half of last-tackle options with a Mikaele obstruction at the 72nd minute – and the Panthers scored on the very next set, off a beautiful grubber from Luai on the last. Joey Leilua wasn’t going for the ball, but still took out Crichton, resulting in a penalty try, and another six points for the Panthers when Cleary booted it through from the sideline, while Crichton reached Nofoaluma and Johnston as equal top tryscorer of 2020.
This would have been a decisive full stop on the game, but the Panthers still had six more points in them – in the last twenty seconds. Despite a strong night overall, Doueihi ended the second half as unfortunately as the first half – arguably worse, since he channeled all his terrific takes by collecting a Cleary chip kick and working his way back in field, only to drop the footy cold while trying to play the ball a moment later.
Cleary tried to go all the way three tackles later, and while he didn’t make it, and while James Fisher-Harris threw a pretty poor pass to Martin on the fourth, Tamou stepped up and forced a dropout with a clutch grubber to the right wing, where Doueihi was forced to bump it into touch. Even here, though, Cleary was part of the picture, getting his captain in place with a one-handed harbour bridge ball as Twal burrowed into him.
Benji sent it short, and Doueihi got a hand to it, but knocked on, setting up the final full set of the night for Penrith. Naden surged into the right corner on play two, and May sent out a wide ball on the last to Mansour, who burned back in field, bumped off Nofa, and tumbled over McIntyre for the final try of the night. Cleary added the extras after the siren, so Brisbane should be pretty worried for next week, while the Tiges will be looking for a better score when they meet the Sea Eagles at Brooky on Saturday night.