It was top against bottom when the Broncos hosted Penrith hosted Suncorp on Thursday night, with only one win to their name in 2020. That said, they’d been the victor in their last four matches against the mountain men, and put in one of their most valiant matches in weeks here, struggling to make field position, or even get within the Panthers’ twenty, but still managing to put serious pressure on an outfit who were playing their first game of the year outside NSW after winning eleven in a row.
In part, that was due to a big boost in players, with Payne Haas, Issac Luke and Corey Oates all back on the park. At the same time, though, the Panthers had Api Koroisau back from a calf injury and Viliame Kikau back from suspension following his late shot in Penrith’s win over Cronulla. Meanwhile, Joe Ofahengaue was suspended for leaning his knee on Jake Friend’s during last week’s match against the Roosters, while Herbie Farnworth had moved to the centres with Jordan Kahu still nursing his injuries.
For the opening couple of minutes the Broncos did well to withstand Penrith, who conceded the first field position when James Tamou coughed up the footy in the face of a low tackle from David Fifita. Brisbane did well to hold Payne Haas up in the middle third of the field, and slow down the next play-the-ball in the process, but Sean O’Sullivan gave Corey Oates a chance to shine immediately with a bomb to the left edge, where his winger knocked it back to trap Brent Naden in goal for a dropout.
Haas made more headway this time around, opening up space for the Broncos to shift it left, where Ben Te’o ran a strong line to force Jarome Luai into a big tackle right on the line. Once again O’Sullivan bombed to the right edge, but this time Brisbane were waiting, cleaning up Farnworth after he collected the tap-back from Oates. Nathan Cleary booted it down to the ten to try and quell Brisbane’s early momentum, and yet the hosts got the first call of six again on the next tackle, off a ruck error from Tamou.
They accelerated again on this set, thanks to a strong run up the right edge from Kotoni Stags, as Tom Dearden now took on kicking duties, booting it to the other side of the field, where Mansour made the second Penrith knock-on of the night while contesting Richie Kennar in the air. Brisbane shifted left out of the scrum, where Tamou and Dylan Edwards only just prevented O’Sullivan crossing over, before Luai made a second, even more urgent, tackle on Te’o on the right.
It all came together on play four, when Staggs continued his previous burst up the right edge by culminating Brisbane’s bests sweep of the night, by collecting a superb short ball from Darius Boyd, who shaped for a cut-out pass but instead sent it across the chest of Stephen Crichton for his no. 4 to score. Staggs converted his own try a moment later, concluding yet another argument for his inclusion in the Blues squad at the end of the season, putting the Broncos six ahead with ten minutes on the clock.
Penrith came up with their best defence so far on the restart, forcing Isaac Luke to kick out of dummy half, four tackles in, within the Brisbane thirty. That said, the Panthers weren’t any more switched on for their next set, as Tamou realised belatedly that it was the last, and popped it across for a Cleary bomb that was too hasty and extemporized for any of the mountain men to get a decent chase on it. Once again, Brisbane didn’t make much headway, but at least this time O’Sullivan got to the kick.
He did well with the boot too, trapping Penrith in their own thirty for the first part of the subsequent set, although Kikau got them over the halfway line with a good strong carry. As a result, Cleary found space to execute the highest bomb so far, but Oates was safe beneath it, reaching out both hands and bending right down to the ground as a squad of pink jerseys advanced on him. Edwards was just as good with the next carry, and so the game started to settle back into the to-and-fro of the opening minutes.
Still the Broncos had the upper hand, as Kennar culminated this shared dexterity under the high ball with the best take yet – leaping up to collect a Cleary bomb right on the chalk while withstanding the chase to remain in the field of play. Prescient this was a real consolidation point for Brisbane, Kikau stormed in to skittle Kennar next time he had ball in hand, but the Broncs quickly absorbed the brunt of Penrith’s attack on the next set, forcing Naden into the third knock-on of the night with a big three-man tackle.
In its own way, this opening quarter had been one of the stronger patches of Brisbane football this year, so it was disappointing when Staggs put down the footy a tackle later, bringing their perfect 11/11 set completion to an end. Big Kotoni made up for it spectacularly, though, reaching out a left hand to collect a left-foot kick from Luai, appearing to knock it on, but backing himself enough to complete the play, as Penrith hesitated to challenge it, and Luai conceded a penalty for crowding in the process.
Yet the Panthers were strong enough, at this point in the season, to capitalise immediately on the first Brisbane penalty – offside for Patrick Carrigan – sweeping left for a clinical try on the wing. Luai received the footy from Cleary, and got some joy for his defensive efforts on the left wing by bouncing back to fend off a Dearden tackle, before running into Kennar, and popping a no-looker out to Mansour, who sliced past Staggs to put down a remarkably soft try after so much Brisbane acceleration.
Cleary was always going to add the extras from the edge, while his halves partner got another chance to shine under the kickoff, showcasing the same balletic footwork he’d brought to his try assist to dance along the sideline before lobbing the Steeden back into the field of play. It felt like Penrith had been using the first quarter as a warm-up just because they could afford to, since they accelerated now, but even then didn’t seem compelled to get right into first gear against the bottom team on the ladder.
To some extent that complacency worked against them, as Cleary came up with a cold drop at the end of a pretty gettable Edwards pass ten metres out from the Brisbane line. Crichton followed Kikau with a second monster tackle on Kennar, and James Fisher-Harris gave Carrigan the same treatment, forcing Dearden to kick within the thirty. Staggs returned the favour on Edwards, preventing him getting the high ball to Mansour as fluidly as he might, but Crichton won this mini-contest on the last play.
This was a superb sequel to the Panthers’ sole burst on the left edge, as the wiry no. 4 found himself in danger of being bundled over the sideline, only to fend off Staggs with his right arm, keep the footy tucked under his left arm, and drop it on his boot at the last second to drive it deep enough in goal to secure Penrith the repeat set. Cleary got Martin a half-break, and O’Sullivan’s first miss of the night, on play three, and O’Sullivan responded with the first penalty in sight of the posts, with a hand in the ruck.
It was a sign of respect that Cleary took the two, giving Penrith the lead for the first time thirty-four minutes into the match. The mountain men had a muscular passage up the middle on the next set, but Boyd was just as determined on the kick return, despite a huge hit from Zane Tetevano off the bench, forcing Penrith to scramble until they conceded a restart on the next play. That just made it more agonising, then, when Carrigan lost the footy on tackle two, setting up Penrith for their second four-pointer.
Finally, Penrith got into first gear, as Cleary dribbled a beautiful grubber off his right boot, threading the needle for Kurt Capewell to get the Steeden down untouched for his first carry in three months. Cleary added the conversion, and the Panthers had gone from six in the red to eight ahead in the last ten minutes. They started conservative with their first set back after the break, and it paid dividends, forcing the Broncs to work it away from their own twenty after Kennar was chased down right on the line.
O’Sullivan came up with a pretty poor effort from within the forty, even if a second bounce got his men some time to regather after Edwards secured it. Yet it all came apart for Penrith on the next set, despite good post-contact metres from Naden, a strong run from Spencer Leniu, and some deft speed out of dummy half from Koroisau, when Crichton didn’t quite manage a short ball from Luai, ricocheting it forward for Kennar to collect on the full before Mansour ever had a shot of cleaning it up.
Brisbane also got the next penalty, with an escorts from Martin, and while Boyd opted for an adventurous parabola of a ball out to Kennar, the no. 5’s offload lost them some momentum, even if Dearden did manage to clean it up with a clutch play before Penrith could rush in for an intercept. By this stage, though, the set had come apart, forcing O’Sullivan into a rushed kick on the last, as the mountain men got stuck in to the war of attrition that would eventually win them the game.
Nevertheless, Brisbane got six again here, thanks to a slow peel from Fish, while Kennar got his best take under the high ball a set later, leaping a full metre above Luai to catch it on the full and come down pretty hard on the turf. He got to his feet OK, but play paused a tackle later for Staggs, giving Penrith time to get in place for their next kick, before shaping into their strongest piece of attack in some time, culminating with six again after Jordan Riki played at a Cleary ricochet on the last.
It was pretty frustrating for the away team, then, when Capewell had the ball knocked out his hands by Paix on the second play, as Brisbane got yet another restart early in the tackle count. Despite Penrith’s uncharacteristic sloppiness, the Broncos had to capitalise on this advantage, or else concede the momentum back to the visitors, so it felt like a real victory for the mountain men when Tetevano came in low for an epic 17-on-17 tackle to dislodge the footy from Jamil Hopoate’s grasp three plays later.
Sure enough, Penrith now got a pair of penalties – offside from O’Sullivan, crusher tackle from Riki on Cleary – and scored at the end of this same set, as Fish took two tackles in front of the right post to build the pressure and field position. For the second time in the game, a Cleary grubber came good, this time for Luai, who made up for a slightly spotty night by sliding past Staggs and reaching out his left hand for the most marginal of groundings before Dearden could get there to clean it up or bump him off.
They might not have scored tries as regularly as they have throughout the year, but the Penrith magic had still been there for both four-pointers – an ineffable synergy amongst the spine, in particular, that was different in kind from anything Brisbane had been able to bring to the table. Luai had now scored in three successive games, wile Cleary booted the extras from right in front as effortlessly as he’d added them from the sideline, propelling his men to a fourteen point lead as the last quarter loomed.
They were tough on the restart, tempting Paix into a dangerous tackle to contain Fisher-Harris. He was put on report for his troubles, and the Panthers got a dropout at the end of this set, when a big effort under the high ball from Staggs was succeeded by an even bigger effort from Kikau to secure him in touch. Koroisau took advantage of Haas being downed in play early in the set, but the big man was soon back on his feet, and collected Cleary’s grubber after pressure from Luke sent it awry.
Brisbane hadn’t been in Penrith’s twenty-metre zone this half, although that just made the fourteen-point deficit even more impressive, in its own way – much less than you’d expect from top playing bottom, especially when the Panthers have been so good and the Broncos have been so bad in 2020. They didn’t need to reach the twenty-metre zone to put down their next try either, as Riki now received a short ball from Dearden and burst through the line to put down his first NRL try in only his fourth appearance.
This was exactly the tough one-man effort that can change the direction of games, as Riki danced over an ankle tap from Luai, dummied back inside at exactly the right moment, and beat Edwards to the corner, before Staggs added a second conversion. It was also the ultimate try against the run of play, both in terms of this specific game and the Broncos’ season as a whole, so with one more four-pointer here Brisbane might have been real contenders for a shock second win of the season over Penrith.
Instead, the mountain men responded just as they had to – with their cleanest, crispest and most clinical try of the night. All it took was a rapid right-side raid, more like a training run than first-grade footy, that ended with Edwards popping a cut-out ball across for To’o to score four more before Farnworth could pop him into touch. Cleary missed the kick, but Penrith were luckier than Brisbane with their Captain’s Challenge in the last ten minutes, dominating field position but still not managing another try.
After failing to decimate Brisbane as clinically as the stats would predict, the Panthers had to end with a flamboyant gesture – and Cleary was the man to bring it, making up for his missed two-pointer by booting a practice field goal through the posts three minutes out from the end. His men will be looking for a bigger win margin, then, when they host the Eels next week, while the Broncos should feel strengthened by what was a relatively strong game, given their season, when they meet Gold Coast on Saturday.