The Roosters had to come back big from their massive loss to South Sydney last week when they rocked up to face the minor premiers at Panthers Stadium on Friday night. They were without Jake Friend and Sonny Bill Williams for the first match of finals footy, although they did have Joseph Manu back on the park, while Penrith were looking to make it sixteen straight wins, and continue beating club records, when they ran out in front of a home crowd at the foot of the mountains.
Both teams went set for set for the first three and a half minutes, until the Panthers got the first restart off some good vision from Api Koroisau in the face of Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, who would go on to have a frustrating night with errors and penalties. Josh Morris struggled more than either fullback under the high ball, although the Roosters still got the advantage when Dylan Edwards stormed in for a second effort right on the Sydney City line.
Boyd Cordner almost broke through on the fifth tackle of the next set, clearing space for Josh Morris to bookend this sequence in the corner, where he collected a brilliant short ball from Luke Keary, who’d also almost linebreak-assisted Cordner a second before. Kyle Flanagan booted a beautiful kick from the sideline and the Chooks were a point per minute, getting a penalty on the restart when Viliame Kikau dropped JWH on his head two tackles in.
It didn’t prevent Kikau from coming in deep on Angus Crichton for the next hit, although the Roosters’ big men remained undaunted, with Isaac Liu making a huge hit-and-spin, Crichton drawing in a cluster of Penrith defenders to hold him up over the line, and Freddy Lussick securing the first try of his NRL career on the last. Barging into Jarome Luai, the young hooker buried the ball deep into his chest as a cascade of Panthers slammed in on top.
The call was try from Gerard Sutton, and was confirmed without any clear Bunker footage to affirm or deny it, so dense was the Penrith defence. The Roosters had now completed six from six, run for almost 200 metres, and enjoyed more than a point per minute, even though Flanno missed the two from right in front. On the other side of the Steeden, the Panthers had conceded both tries off errors, and had to dig deep to recapture their Round 1 comeback against the Roosters, when they trailed 0-12.
Brent Naden got his men rolling with a big hit on Tedesco under the next high ball, but Teddy responded with one of his strongest runs of the night, swerving his way up the middle and getting Keary in position for a kick that defied Brian To’o right on the chalk. The Chooks now had their very first scrum feed, and started with a terrific to-and-fro between Cleary and Tedesco that very nearly produced a try beside the right post.
Five-eighth and fullback combined again on the second play, when Keary started a right sweep that ended with a harbour bridge ball out to Brett Morris on the wing. Yet the Panthers now finally channeled the urgency of Naden’s hit on Tedesco, as Josh Mansour and Luai held up Morris long enough for a pack effort to arrive and drag him over the sideline. This would turn out to be the critical tipping-point during the first half, although neither team could know it yet.
The crowd went wild when the Roosters gave away their first penalty on the next tackle – offside within the ten from JWH – and even wilder when the Panthers showed they could capitalise on errors just as clinically as their Tricoloured counterparts. Their first left side attack utterly decimated the Roosters’ right edge, as a pair of deception plays from Luai (who shaped to change direction) and Kikau (who shaped to kick) set up Mansour to smash past Flanno and put the ball down with his right palm.
Seeing Sauce score always lifts Penrith’s spirits, so this was a big boost even if Cleary didn’t put the ball through the posts, as James Tamou commenced the restart with a barnstorming run, and James Fisher-Harris and Isaah Yeoh followed with more metres up the middle. Cleary’s kick was so big the bounce felt like a high ball, and yet Teddy did well to set up his men for their next restart, off a ruck error from Kikau, although the pressure caught up with him with a rare forward pass a couple of tackles later.
Penrith now effectively had a second restart – another chance to make good on the momentum of their first try. Joey Manu cleaned up the kick without any trouble, but the game then paused as JWH came in for a high hit on Edwards which resulted in his second successive penalty of the night, providing Penrith with their best burst of field position since their try.
A minute later, they took the lead, as Liam Martin lost the ball out the back of a huge tackle from Keary, Cordner and Sio Siua Taukeiaho. With contact on Taukeiaho cleared, the play remained open for Edwards to storm in, scoop up the footy, and shift it acoss for Cleary to more or less score untouched. Penrith needed a show of strength from Cleary to channel their minor premiership, so this try seemed to reset the game, reclaiming Panthers Stadium as their own.
Full credit has to go to Edwards, too, who could have chosen the safe option and just secured the footy, but was confident enough in his halfback to set up a play he couldn’t even see coming. No surprise, then, that Penrith now settled into one of their most fluid and free-flowing sets of the night, regathering seamlessly from a Moses Leota stumble on the fourth before Cleary sent through a massive bomb that pushed Daniel Tupou back to the five metre point to catch it.
Teddy made ten post-contact metres up the left on the next set, Edwards caught Keary’s next bomb on the full, Naden went down in backplay for what appeared to be a pec injury, Cleary tried and failed to get a 40/20, and the game reached a new level of intensity as the last fifteen minutes approached, with both Cleary and Keary going for fourth-tackle kicks to keep up with the speed of the game.
This ushered in a sublime period for the Penrith halves combination, as Luai responded with a beautiful grubber that Cleary slid onto right on the line. Only Tedesco was left as last line of defence, but the Blues halfback outplayed the Blues fullback, almost bobbling the footy into Teddy’s jersey but regathering it at the last minute and taking advantage of the dewy turf to careen over the chalk for back-to-back four-pointers.
Cleary now had twelve points on the board once he converted from right in front – a sobering challenge to Tedesco to get his house back in order, especially since the Chooks had now conceded 76 points in 85 minutes, almost a point per minute, over the last two weeks of football. Nevertheless, the Tricolours seemed spooked, as a Liu fumble on their next last tackle forced Lussick to take over kicking duties.
Cleary now secured the first dropout of the game, realising Tedesco was out of position after a belter into Kikau, and so booting through a long, low kick that was uniquely shaped to trap Tupou in goal. A shorter player might have been able to bend down and scoop up the Steeden in time, but the Giraffe was never going to get back in the field of play with a pack of Panthers descending on him in the critical extra second it took him to get his lanky frame to ground.
Cordner reversed all that on the last tackle with one of the best Sydney City collects of the night, gathering Edwards’ kick after it ricocheted off Morris, as the Panthers found themselves scrambling for the first time in a while, especially once Naden was pinged for lying in the ruck a tackle later. With five minutes left the Chooks had to level the tally, but the set came to nothing when Flanagan mistimed a pass from Keary, who knocked it on as a result.
Four tackles later, the Penrith halves synced up even more sublimely, starting with one of the best try assists of Luai’s career. Collecting the footy from Cleary, he danced across the face of the ruck, staring down Flanagan, showing it in his right hand, shaping to pass for Kikau and finally sending it back to Crichton, who broke through the line and lobbed it back inside for Cleary to put down his third career hat trick on the brink of half time.
This had been one of Cleary’s greatest passages of football at Penrith – that’s really saying something – and the pinnacle of his rapport with Luai; just what the Panthers needed for the first week of finals. They may have only been ahead by twelve, but they’d come back so fast and strong that they felt light years in front here – and it all came down, ultimately, to the team tackle that had dragged Morris over the sideline on the cusp of what initially seemed a likely third try from Sydney City.
The Roosters needed to make a big statement back from the sheds to prove this was no repeat of their catastrophic loss to the Bunnies last week, so it was pretty dispiriting when Teddy knocked on the play-the-ball on their very first set. While Leota knocked on a moment later, Martin forced a knock-on from Lussick in turn, as Cleary added yet another brilliant move to the highlight reel, diving to ground to pop the footy back to To’o, who offloaded for Naden to crash over on the right edge.
The Lussick error prevented this being a try, but even so the Panthers had showed how effortlessly they could execute a tryscoring sequence, while Cleary got a chance to flex his boot off a Lussick offside a moment later. His kick bounced off the post, but his next kick was effectively an assist, and the platform for another silky halves combo, as Luai tapped it back for Tyrone May to shift it out from Crichton, who tucked it under his left arm, fended off Brett Morris and rolled through Flanagan for another four points.
The Roosters needed a big one-man effort to get back in the game – and Teddy delivered next time he had ball in hand, taking advantage of the space opened up by Flanagan by shaping to pass to Manu, but instead twisting and spinning through both Kikau and Edwards five metres out from the line. This was a Cleary-like move from Tedesco – a member of the spine playing like a forward – and was the fuel Sydney City needed to settle into a second wind as the last twenty-five minutes arrived.
It didn’t hurt, either, that Tupouniua’s head was gushing blood after copping the studs of Edwards’ boot, since the Roosters needed to show they were prepared to bleed to get this game back on track. They now settled into their best bout of field position since their opening two tries, thanks to an offside penalty from Koroisau, a pack effort that dragged To’o over the sideline, a ruck infringement from Cleary, their first dropout, and a potential obstruction from Cordner that was cleared with a Captain’s Challenge.
The pack effort on Morris had reversed the momentum in Penrith’s favour, and the pack effort on To’o did the same here, as the Chooks now came up with one of the most bizarre and remarkable tries of 2020. It started innocuously enough, with To’o knocking back a Keary kick, but from there the footy defied Edwards and Naden, and falconed off Cordner’s head, remaining open for Josh Morris to skid in and pop it down with his right hand.
Sydney City needed a miracle to get back in the game – and had they got it, to the point where Morris didn’t initially claim the try, so impossible did it seem. With Flanno adding the extras the Chooks were only a converted try away, with fifteen minutes on the clock, but the Panthers got rolling again when James Fisher-Harris charged down and falconed a Keary kick, and the Chooks lost a Challenge by trying to deem it a knock-on.
Another error from JWH ushered in the last phase of the game, as the big man spilled the ball cold and headed off early a moment later. With eight minutes left it was time for Cleary to take the one, but he couldn’t get in position, and the Chooks recovered the footy when Brett Morris stayed strong under Luai’s next kick right on the Sydney City line.
Five minutes out, Penrith got a penalty forty-five metres out, and chose to tap and go instead of getting Cleary to kick. Luai’s next kick bounced off Flanagan, the Panthers got a repeat set, and Luai almost broke through on tackle two, before Cleary added the field goal to make it a nine point lead. In the perfect conclusion to this incredible game, however, a Naden penalty cost them the restart, and Crichton collected a Keary ball to slam through a sea of Penrith defenders and score the last Roosters try.
Flanagan added the extras immediately, and the Roosters had one set to score a field goal. Morris found space on the left edge where he was contained, and still Keary got in position to kick, but in an agonising final turn for the Chooks he wasn’t close enough to nail it, and so the Panthers came away with a one-point win in the hardest-fought game for Penrith this year – a tantalising glimpse of the next finals outing for both teams.