ROUND 20: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v. Penrith Panthers (ANZ Stadium, 26/9/20)

Saturday night’s game at ANZ – the last ever for Gavin Badger – was a pretty dour end to the 2020 season for Canterbury-Bankstown, who didn’t score a single point as Penrith piled on 42. That said, they kept the mountain men to 4 in the first half hour, while Jack Cogger got a 40/20 on his very first kick, only to start the repeat with a wayward pass, forcing Dallin Watene Zelezniak to scramble to clean it up on the left side of the park, before failing to get to his kick on the final play.

Conversely, the Panthers got six again on the next set, after a James Fisher-Harris ball ricocheted off DWZ’s head and was tapped back by Josh Mansour. They were driving deep into the left corner by the second tackle, thanks to a good run from Nathan Cleary, before Brent Naden broke through three lines of defence on the fourth. Still, Kerrod Holland came up with a pretty strong catch under Cleary’s crossfield chip on the last to get his men rolling back up the field again.  

Penrith looked pretty staunch on their next set, from a great take under the high ball from Dane Laurie in only his third game, to a spectacular no-look offload from Brian To’o, who ejected the footy vertically off the ground on the next play, before crashing over in the right corner on the last, off a second offload from Laurie. This was a great linkup between the young guns – and full credit to Apisai Koroisau too, for the searching fifteen-metre run that opened up space on the wing in the first place.

Weirdly, Cleary shanked the Steeden away from the left post, although Penrith continued to build on the restart, spreading the ball wide on the first tackle, and then working it up the middle, before Cleary bombed to the sunny side of the park. Raymond Faitala-Mariner got the Dogs some headway by trampling over three players on the next set, and Holland did well to stay in the field of play in the face of a big combined tackle on the left side, but Penrith were still only in second gear.

Canterbury took advantage of that relative relaxation on the next set, when Reimis Smith and Luke Thompson forced Jarome Luai over the sideline for the most decisive defensive gesture of the afternoon so far. With six again on the next tackle, the Bulldogs had their best field position since the opening two minutes, but Holland seemed rattled by a huge To’o tackle on the second, booting through an underwhelming grubber on the last that Laurie cleaned up without any trouble.

Once again the Panthers swept right in their own end, and once again Cleary bombed from long-range, giving DWZ space for a massive run into Isaah Yeoh on the first play. Thompson made twenty metres and got his men six again on the last tackle, but Smith didn’t hear the call, wasting the next set on a scrappy short kicking option that ricocheted off Brent Naden and straight back into the hands of Yeoh.

Set restarts on tackle five are pretty rare, and the Bulldogs had botched it here, although they got a chance to resume their momentum following a fumbled play-the-ball from Naden three tackles later. Before the Panthers packed the scrum, however, James Tamou reported an eye gouge from Thompson, who was put on report without any review of video footage for the moment. Will Hopoate took his first big run on the left wing a tackle later, and Cogger surged up the middle, opening up the right wing.

With Thompson barging up the middle, and the Dogs sweeping left again, this had been their most dynamic and kinetic set of the afternoon, so it was frustrating for the home crowd when Penrith got a penalty under the high ball off a second effort from Holland that pushed To’o into touch. Nevertheless, the speed of this Canterbury set propelled both teams into a new intensity, with player after player raring to break through the line, and forwards from both sides adding significant metres to their run tally.

The Bulldogs had a close call as the second quarter approached, when Hoppa missed a Cleary chip, and Okunbor not only secured the ball, but got it back into the field of play. Still, the hosts were trapped in their end this set, forcing Cogger to kick behind the twenty – the perfect time for Kurt Capewell to charge down the ball and set up Jarome Luai to commence the next set within the Panthers’ half, despite a strong counter-charge from Renouf To’omaga.

This compressed set came to nothing after a Luai penalty, but the Panthers steadily accelerated over the next ten minutes, almost scoring a try when Brian To’o crossed over the line, only to drop the footy at the last minute due to big pressure from Brandon Wakeman. Finally, at the thirty-first minute, Luai executed a beautiful right-foot grubber at close range, Cogger reached down and missed it, and Capewell scooped it up to sail over for the Panthers’ second try and Cleary’s first conversion.

Things now accelerated for Penrith, as two successive ruck errors from JMK and DWZ laid the platform for Luai to fend off Cogger, slide through the line and time a short pass to Naden perfectly before DWZ could tackle either of them. Naden briefly bobbled the ball and then regathered it for the third try, but the spectacle here lay in Luai’s run, which was so surprising after so many set plays that it unleashed all Penrith’s bottled-up energy, getting them into a tryscoring groove that lasted the rest of the game. 

No surprise that they scored again on the restart, as To’o and Moses Leota capped off the set with strong carries before the mountain men came up with their most ingenious last tackle option yet – a cut-out pass from Cleary to Naden, who responded with a split-second oblique grubber off the right boot. Capewell timed the bounce perfectly, tucking it under his right arm for a first-half double before Cleary added his third conversion to make it 22 unanswered points as his men headed to the sheds.

Yeoh stepped up as playmaker after the break, busting through a couple of tackles and kicking at speed for Koroisau to clean up JMK behind the line. The strongest play of the dropout came on the fourth, when Luai danced off the left boot and almost broke through the line, forcing Chris Smith to decelerate him with a low tackle before Hoppa came in to prevent the putdown. Penrith didn’t do much with the last play, but they got another chance when JMK put the ball down early in the Dogs’ next set.

Still, the mountain men had lost a bit of momentum since returning from the break, as Leota now fumbled the play-the-ball, taking out his frustration in style by joining Koroisau and Liam Martin for a massive three-man effort to drive DWZ back ten metres on the first tackle. Dean Britt hit back with an enormous tackle on Martin midway through the next Penrith set, but the mountain men got another burst of field position when DWZ played at an improvised banana kick from Mansour right on the sideline.

It felt right, then, that Sauce scored on the next set, cruising over in the corner to cap off one of Penrith’s calmest left sweeps of the night – a good way to steady the ship after a slightly spotty ten minutes. The putdown was great, as Mansour leaped past Reimis Smith, and the assist was just as spectacular, as Luai dodged away from a DWZ tackle to dig even deeper into the line before shifting the Steeden out to Sauce. 

Yet the true hero here was the cameraman who held his line as Mansour crashed into him, resulting in one of the best pieces of footage this year – a POV shot from the ground, the cameraman’s feet in the bottom of the frame, as Luai ran over to high five Mansour. While Cleary missed another conversion, this was still a critical consolidation moment for the Panthers, who didn’t score on the restart, but might as well have, so clinically did they hold off the Dogs and then add to their tally count a set later.

Luai set the scene by showing a big dummy on the fourth, before we were treated to another complex, oblique and unpredictable short-range kicking option on the last. Cleary grubbered from the ten, the footy ricocheted off a Canterbury jersey, Capewell kicked again right on the line, and Naden barged through the Bulldogs defence to get the footy down, putting the Panthers 32-0 with Cleary converting from right in front.

They lost a bit of rhythm with a rare error from Sauce in the face of a driving Bulldogs defence, but the hosts couldn’t capitalise, mounting an unsuccessful Captain’s Challenge to contest a knock-on from Tui Katoa and then losing Raymond Faitala-Mariner when his ankle twisted awkwardly in a tackle from Martin, Mansour and Tyrone May – a pretty dispiriting sight given that Aiden Tolman had strained his calf during warmup and Okunbor had left the park with a suspected ACL before half time.

The Panthers scored off the next big change in possession – a superb strip from May on Sauaso Sue, who got dacked in the process. Tamou made good metres up the middle, Laurie took a crack at the line, and Matt Burton collected a short ball from Luai to bump off Reimis Smith and trample over DWZ to get the footy down in the corner. Cleary missed another conversion, but it wasn’t a problem this week, since Penrith were now ahead with another twelve minutes to score more.

A series of errors prevented them scoring immediately, but once again the Bulldogs couldn’t make the most of this lull. For a moment it looked like Thompson might have put them on the board, building on a terrific run early in the tackle count to barge at three defenders and the post, only for the replay to show that the Penrith defence had done their job, forcing him to cough up the footy just before he got it to ground.

With Thompson making an unforced handling error on the next Canterbury set, and To’o subbing on for Yeoh, the game swung back in Penrith’s direction for the last few minutes – and their captain crossed over to make it forty with four on the clock. Receiving a short ball from May, Tamou revived a straggling set by shrugging off Thompson and barging through three defenders under the line, setting up Cleary for an easy conversion to bring the Bulldogs to a 0-42 loss.

It was a pretty disappointing end to the season for the blue and white, and a galvanising win for the Panthers as they head into the first week of finals. Cleary needs to to improve his kicking game, for the Blues as much as for the mountain men, but apart from that Penrith can hold their head high, and set their sights on the premiership, when they take on the Roosters for finals footy at the foot of the mountains next Friday night.

About Billy Stevenson (751 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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