Saturday night’s game at ANZ was one of the most dramatic arm wrestles of this finals season, featuring long periods without scoring, and short bursts of points, that saw Penrith come away with a four-point win. The match started with a tough penalty on James Tamou for a late tackle on Adam Reynolds, and while Reyno missed the kick – the first in a pair of misses that would cost the Bunnies Golden Point, and possibly the win – the visitors didn’t have to wait too long to score.
Corey Allan stripped the footy from Dylan Edwards on the first tackle of the next Panthers set, and Reynolds reasserted his boot a tackle later, sending out a perfect ball to Alex Johnston, who caught it on the full with Liam Martin barely getting a finger to him. No surprise that Reyno got the two points this time around, putting the Bunnies almost exactly a point per minute as the Steeden sailed through the uprights.
Johnston wasn’t so good with the catch two sets later, when he knocked on a Nathan Cleary bomb, leaving it live for Brian To’o to scoot in, scoop it up, fend off Dane Gagai, break away from Allan and barge through Bayley Sironen for the Panthers’ 29th try off a kick in 2020. With Cleary adding the extras we were all locked up, and yet there would only be four more tries, two apiece, with a missed conversion from Reynolds and penalty kick from Cleary making the difference.
Penrith had their best set on the restart, as a Kurt Capewell offload put Luai through the line, but Johnston was there to collect the kick, even if he rolled over into touch to grant the mountain men the first dropout of the match. Luai made a good catch off a Reynolds kick, but the Panthers wasted their Captain’s Challenge a tackle later to contest a Josh Mansour knock-on, since the replay showed that he’d simply lost the footy while trying to play it too rapidly.
This was a potential momentum-killer, since from the speed and strength of the last Penrith set – and the clutch play it necessitated from Johnston – they stood a pretty good chance of putting down a double here. Yet the Rabbits couldn’t do much that was convincing on the next set, while the Panthers got a restart next time they had ball in hand, rolling their big men up the middle until Isaah Yeoh broke through the line off a no-look short pass from Apisai Koroisau.
The Panthers now botched two successive try assists, on either side of the field, off unforced errors. The first came when Cleary mistimed the harbour bridge ball that should have sent To’o over for a double out on the wing. The second came on their next set, when Mansour added a third linebreak up the left edge, and sent Capewell across the line untouched, but with a forward pass that was even more agonising in that it had been the big second-rower’s double-pump that sent him through the line.
Yet the Rabbitohs couldn’t capitalise on this shift in momentum – or consolidate into a shift in momentum – wasting their own Captain’s Challenge on the next set in an attempt to claim that a Tevita Tatola knock-on had been a strip from Cleary on the ground. Seventeen minutes in, both teams had zero challenges left, and Cameron Murray took out his team’s frustration with a sterling tackle just as Luai was shaping for something dangerous.
This disrupted the rest of the set, forcing James Fisher-Harris to pause for a couple of seconds, before Tyrone May lost the ball backwards to To’o in the weakest turnover for Penrith so far. Tom Burgess surged at the line three tackles into the next set, and Tatola followed with a strong run, getting Reynolds in position for an early kick that Edwards caught on the line but played at the ten.
This was a good effort from Edwards, but Gagai cemented this brief Bunnies resurgence with a monster tackle on Martin – a perfect sequel to Murray’s hit on Luai – and while Martin got his own back with an ankle tap on Tatola, Fish came in with a swinging arm that got him put on report for his troubles. There wasn’t much more to it than a Grade 1 careless, but even so Souths now had their best attacking opportunity for some time, only for Walker to drop the ball cold at the end of their next sweep.
Penrith capitalised perfectly, with To’o putting in a barnstorming run to bust through three tackles, and Cleary poking his nose through the line before showing Reynolds he could kick for a try as well. In fact, this was the best kick so far – a beautiful effort that split the difference between a bomb and chip, soaring on a string to May, who put it down behind the posts for a six point lead once Cleary added the extras.
It was a pretty error-laden last ten minutes for both teams, but especially Souths, culminating with a Hame Sele knock-on and then an escort from Jed Cartwright that set up Cleary for a penalty kick at the thirty-ninth minute. Even then, the Bunnies weren’t done with the mistakes, as Walker closed out a pretty spotty forty with an illegal strip on the brink of half time.
The errors continued after the break, and once again the Bunnies were the worse for it, as Gagai was pinged for a knock-on despite some crowding from Moses Leota that the visitors were powerless to contest after wasting their Captain’s Challenge in the first half. Yet this frustration proved remunerative, as Souths now settled into some of their best defence all night, shutting down a set play on the first Penrith tackle, before Paulo dragged Mansour over the line from five metres in field on the last.
Even better, the Bunnies translated that defensive acumen back into attack to achieve their first dropout of the game off a sublime team effort at the end of their next set. Reynolds kicked, the ball bounced away from Edwards at a crazy angle, and a trio of offloads from Walker, Murray and Nichols set up Cook to assist a second kick from Gagai that To’o was compelled to take out of play in the left corner.
Yet despite an early dummy that almost put Su’A through the line, Reyno came up with a pretty underwhelming kick at the end of it all, allowing Luai to bring the ball back fifteen metres, and so cascade his men into a sequence of escalating runs that culminated with a Cleary kick that trapped Paulo right on the South Sydney line. Still, Souths got one more chance to recoup this recent rhythm, off the second swinging arm of the night, this time from Zane Tetevano on Cartwright.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as Murray responded with the cleanest and most clinical linebreak of the game, clearing space for Gagai to cross over off a Walker assist – or cross his arm over, rolling through a Cleary ankle tap to land on his left elbow and pivot his right arm around to arc the Steeden down behind his forehead. This was the gutsiest try of the night, and the first under real defensive pressure, so it should have ushered in a Souths comeback, especially after Reynolds’ spectacular sideline kick.
Instead, the game lapsed back into the same slog of the last ten minutes, as Allan diluted the intensity by putting down a Cleary bomb after catching it clean in the air. Capewell got a let-off after – supposedly – losing the ball backwards, Reynolds made his first big tackle on Cleary, and the Panthers got six again, building towards another beautiful Cleary kick that looked set to pay dividends as elegantly as his boot to May in the opening minutes.
Even with Reynolds crowding in Stephen Crichton should have caught this, but instead the pressure got to him, as a third Penrith try went begging after their two botched assists in the first forty. With Burgess coughing up the ball trying to play it too quickly, and Capewell getting pinged for a knock-on, it was starting to feel like the next team to score might control the last part of the game, so straggling had this arm-wrestle become.
Crichton was the next to break through the line, and while he lost it immediately, Yeoh followed in his footsteps with his best play of the year, putting in a left foot step and right arm fend to break away from Cook, and then dancing over a last-ditch ankle tap from Burgess to send Edwards over. Cleary added the extras right in front to exceed the 800-point mark, but Gagai got the ball back after Reynolds risked a short kick for the restart.
Reyno double-pumped a short ball to Walker at the end of this unexpected South Sydney attack – a set play that’s worked well over the last few weeks, but was powerless in the face of a combined tackle from Luai and Mitch Kenny. The Bunnies did better on the next set, though, as Walker opened up space for Allan on the left edge, and a ruck error from Yeoh provided them with their last really sustained attacking position of the night.
Nichols barged at the line on the first play looking for a hit-and-spin, Reynolds took a run in front of the posts where he was stopped in his tracks by Fish, Cook sent out a short ball to Liam Knight who was forced to ground to avoid an obstruction play, and finally Cook shifted the ball out to the left, starting the strangest sweep play for any team this year.
It looked to fall apart with a poor pass from Walker to Allan, but the big fullback saved the day by opting for his boot instead of his hands, kicking it along the sideline, soccer-style, before slicing past To’o to slam it down – an utterly galvanising try, spectacular enough to guarantee that South Sydney could come back over the last six minutes if they just continued this vision and innovation.
It was a bad sign when Reynolds missed the conversion, and while he seemed to have regathered with a sublime 40/20, the replay showed he’d put his left boot on the line at the last minute. Even with this foot of difference, it was still one of the best kicks of the night, but it couldn’t provide the Bunnies with the extra field position they needed. Penrith only had to survive two more sets – and they did, setting us up for a blockbuster Grand Final when they take on Melbourne at ANZ next Sunday night.