The Panthers had a rousing huddle before they ran out onto the park at Penrith on Friday night, top ranked on the NRL ladder but up against the only team who’ve beat them in 2020 – Parramatta. The mountain men got a restart on their first set, and Liam Martin muscled his way into Jai Field a tackle later, before Nathan Cleary put through his first kick and spearheaded the chase to drive Clint Gutherson back to the blue and gold line.
Penrith were playing with their top 13, and had their top 17 available, with the exception of Dean Whare – and it sure felt that way at the end of their second set, when Cleary opted to run the footy, allowing Brent Naden to take a chip in goal, while continuing his trajectory to trap Gutho behind the chalk for the first dropout. Gutho’s kick bounced a few times before James Fisher-Harris banged into the defence, and the situation looked desperate for Parra as Field went down in backplay and James Tamou cleared up space in the middle.
For the first time, Penrith flexed their left side muscles, and yet Mitchell Moses saved the day with a clutch intercept – the first of many aborted left side plays that would see the Panthers struggle to score despite totally dominating possession during this first stanza. The Eels got some more momentum when Brian To’o put down a Naden pass – the first error of the night – but Ryan Matterson wasted it with a first tackle offload that went straight back into the hands of the hosts. Dylan Edwards glimpsed a space on play two, and while Regan Campbell-Gillard closed it up, Penrith almost score a sublime try on the very next tackle.
The sequence started with a rapid left sweep from Cleary, and climaxed with Stephen Crichton running into a rapidly closing gap, driving his head into Blake Ferguson’s right arm as the ball came loose. In slow motion it seemed to bounce backwards – partly because it rolled over Crichton’s back – but the Bunker deemed it a knock-on, so it didn’t matter that Josh Mansour had scooted in, scooped it up and planted it down a second later.
Nevertheless, Penrith got their second restart on the next set, and made another dangerous sweep to the right, after Martin popped out an offload that set up Cleary for a soaring harbour bridge ball that very nearly sent Viliame Kikau through the line. Martin was still looking dangerous a tackle later, tempting a high hit from Michael Jennings – the first penalty of the night – as the Panthers chose to tap and go, heading left once more, where Crichton sent the ball too low to Josh Mansour, leaving time for Waqa Blake to bump him over the sideline. Penrith still got the scrum, though, since Fergo made the first error, and needed to prove that they could make good on their left edge attack with 68% of possession to their name.
Once again, though, the try eluded them, as Jarome Luai now got his turn to cross over the chalk, but found Fergo beneath the ball the whole way, with Moses coming in on top to contain the tackle. This was a good way for Ferguson to make up for his previous error, but the Panthers still had half the set up their sleeve. Cleary kicked to the left, Kikau knocked on, and Penrith made their first Captain’s Challenge on the very next play.
They wanted to contest a supposed strip from Tamou on Fergo, but with four in the tackle there wasn’t enough visibility to overturn the on-field decision, so the Eels got another boost as Moses booted the footy up field. Twelve minutes in, they now had their first tackle in the Panthers’ half, and while Apisai Koroisau responded with a huge hit on RCG, a Junior Paulo offload to Gutho got the blue and gold some more headway on the next tackle. Both teams rolled up and down the park for a couple of sets, until the Eels got the toughest call of the night – the most marginal of escort penalties for Blake as Gutho made a dazzling take under a Luai kick to the left corner.
This should have been consolidation time for Penrith, but instead Moses put his body on the line, coming in for a huge tackle on Kikau that dislodged the Steeden, adding to the Panthers’ accumulating error count. The mountain men lost more energy with two aborted tryscoring efforts soon after – the first a team try formation that almost rivalled the Warriors’ sublime effort on the stroke of half time against Parra last week.
The footy moved through half the players on the field before it came off Maika Sivo’s knee in goal, and luckily for the Eels the cult winger recovered just in time to bump it into touch as To’o came in for the kill. Penrith still had the dropout, but it ended with another frustrated opportunity, when Koroisau held up the ball to draw in RCG, isolating Moses Leota and Nathan Brown for a one-on-one struggle that Leota would have won if he hadn’t coughed up the footy just as he crashed over the try line.
The nadir of this first stanza came a minute later, when Edwards made another terrific take under the high ball, and popped out a regulation pass to Mansour, only for Sauce to drop it cold. That said, Parra had a howler on the very next set as well, when Moses drifted into the line on the right corner, and reached out his hand to show the ball for what initially seemed like the start of leisurely tryscoring sequence. Instead, Gutho wasn’t even looking to receive it, letting the ball bounce of his chest as Brad Arthur put his hands over his face in frustration.
Again, this should have been crunch time for the Panthers, but instead To’o made an error and Edwards and Koroisau took out their collective frustration with a pair of dangerous tackles that set up Moses for the first penalty goal – and the first points – of the game. On an evening when both teams had struggled to score, and both teams had struggled to capitalise on the other’s errors, this was a significant advantage, both in terms of morale and points on the board.
True to the rhythm of the match as a whole, however, the Eels couldn’t add much to these two points as the clock wound down to half time, struggling in the final minutes in particular, when they wasted their Captain’s Challenge to contest a loose carry from Kane Evans – more proof that the big men aren’t the best players to hang a challenge on. Fergo made a mistake a moment later, and Evans infringed the ruck to gift Penrith another restart, although this first forty still looked like a win for Parra, who’d helped induce ten mistakes from Penrith, and survived a massive slew of Penrith linebreaks.
All that changed in the last five seconds, though, when the Panthers finally made good on their left edge attack in one scintillating sequence. The simplicity of the try made it even better, since this basically came down to a pair of superb passes and a sublime putdown – a wide ball from Koroisau to Luai, and a soaring rainbow ball from Luai out to Mansour, who flew past Fergo through the air to slam the footy down with his right hand.
With Cleary adding the extras as reliably as ever, the mountain men were four ahead heading into the sheds, while Parra didn’t even get a defensive set to recoup their momentum after this dazzling play. The first twelve minutes back were without incident, apart from a backwards bobble from Sivo under the high ball that the Eels quickly contained, and a great offload on the ground from Nathan Brown that set the scene for some superb second-phase play from both teams. Despite a few frustrated kicks from Cleary, this really felt like first against third, as both teams completed set after set, and struggled to find space in the other’s defensive line.
As Parra defended, offloaded and consolidated, they gradually neutralized the impact of Mansour’s late try, resetting the playing field as the final half hour approached, even if the effort was clearly fatiguing them as well. The match paused almost exactly ten minutes in – not for an error or penalty, but for Spencer Leniu to be examined and taken off for an HIA, to assess the impact of a loose arm from Moses mere seconds after he took the field.
Finally, twelve and a half minutes in, Lane fumbled the footy while trying to play it – and the Panthers were pretty lucky to get their next dropout immediately, as Blake and Kikau collided in the air at the back of a pretty standard Cleary kick. Blake knocked it back but the other Blake was trapped in goal, and the whole tempo of the game shifted as the mountain men ground into the first big attacking opportunity of the second stanza.
Zane Tetevano brough back the ball, Fish made metres on the right edge, Cleary set up Martin for more field position on the third, Koroisau offloaded for Cleary on the fourth, and Isaah Yeoh barged into the defence right on the line on the fifth. Everything came together on the last, when Cleary chipped to the right corner, and Martin culminated a great sequence for the forward pack by leaping up and reaching his hands over his head, AFL-style, to catch the Steeden and slam it down all in one dexterous movement. Cleary added the extras to make it a ten point lead – massive in this game – and shot through his biggest bomb of the night.
So high and hard was this spiraling bullet of a ball that it totally defied Fergo, who reached out both his hands to contain it but instead found it swiveling past him like a whirling dervish. Gutho beat Luai to it in goal, but the Panthers didn’t lose any speed on the next dropout, as Mansour barged into Matto and Paulo on the first, Fish added to his huge hit-up tally on the second, Edwards dashed through a few tackles on the third, and Yeoh forced Will Smith into his biggest defensive effort of the night on the fourth.
This time Cleary booted it straight down the middle, and Fergo was once again trapped in goal, only for the rhythm to shift once again when Luai made a second effort to secure the dropout, and Koroisau had to leave the park for an HIA after copping Ferguson’s hip in the face. The run metre tally was incredible as the final ten minutes approached – 273 for Edwards, 190 for Mansour, 178 for To’o, 170 for Fish, and Paulo next at 111.
Parra got their next big chance when Cleary was caught on the last, especially since was the furthest they’d been upfield for a changeover this stanza. They got another burst with a restart off a ruck error from Tamou, but the set didn’t come to much when there was no chase to follow Moses’ kick, meaning Mansour could swivel in and out of the try line before bringing the footy back. Cleary had better luck with the boot a moment later, slotting through the first 40/20 of the game to get his men back on the blue and gold line, while To’o followed up with an incredible clutch play on the third that very nearly turned into an intercept try for Michael Jennings.
Cleary straightened the play again on the fourth, running straight into the Eels’ big men, and the tackle count restarted off another rolling ball, as all the Panthers’ determination and focus crystallised into their fiftieth tackle within the Parramatta twenty. Luai kicked on the second and Fergo conceded another dropout, although the Eels were still doing brilliantly in their own way, running on empty with the stats so severely aligned against them.
By all accounts the Panthers should have been forty or fifty ahead, so the score was a testament to the Parramatta defence, which peaked again on tackle two of the dropout, when a pack of blue and gold defenders suffocated what looked like a certain tryscoring run in front of the left post. Cleary dabbed on the last and Parramatta were called offside, as the Panthers chose to take the two and wind down the clock rather than tire themselves out too much for what now looked like a certain win in their 100th game against their western rivals.
The night ended bad from Gutho, who was skittled by a massive low shot from Kikau, with Crichton coming in on top to clean it up, and then conceded another try right on the siren, as Luai showcased the best footwork all night to dodge away from six or seven tackles before barging through the Parramatta fullback right beneath the posts. Once again Cleary added the extras after the clock stopped, and while Parra had put in a superb effort, Penrith were clearly the better team, continuing to break club records by now making it thirteen wins in a row. With only the Cowboys and Bulldogs to contend with in the last two weeks before finals, they’re tantalizingly close to being the first team to win every match of the season bar one since St. George in the 1950s.
On the other side of the Steeden, this should be a big wake-up call for the Eels, who didn’t make a linebreak and have been the lowest-scoring team in the NRL over the last couple of weeks. They’re still defending well, but they need to recover their superb attacking mojo of the first part of the season to back themselves moving into finals, so they’ll be looking for big win over the Broncos and Tigers over the next fortnight.