Sometimes a team has to drop to their very nadir to recover their greatness. So it was with the Knights in the mid-late 2010s, and so it may be with Brisbane, if Thursday night’s sterling performance against the Panthers was anything to go by. While the mountain men eventually came away with the win, off a Nathan Cleary two-point field goal and try in the final five minutes, the Broncos put in their most heroic effort in twelve months, fired up by a massive talk from Kevin Walters in the sheds beforehand.
In that sense, this game was a natural counterpart to the Manly-Gold Coast clash and the Tigers-Rabbitohs clash – a trio of matches in which the underdog rose to the surface (and, in the case of the Sea Eagles, came out on top). Of these three, the Brisbane game was arguably the most impressive, since Penrith had averaged 28 points a game so far in 2021, showcased the same outfit that beat Canberra last week, and only had Dylan Edwards and Apisai Koroisau out of their top squad.
On the other side of the Steeden, Jesse Arthars was unwell, shifting David Mead into the centres, and Anthony Milford was left out for the first time in his career at Brisbane. He was replaced by Brodie Croft at five-eighth, while Corey Oates had his first game of the year on the left wing. Ben Te’o was undergoing surgery this week, and will be out for roughly three months after his biceps injury against the Bunnies, while Isaako, Dearden, Croft and Turpin were playing as a spine foursome for the first time.
The Broncos started with a strong set, including two runs from Matt Lodge, and really amped up the defence on Penrith’s opening carry, putting in a big effort to drag back Stephen Crichton and Matt Burton early in the tackle count. Croft’s next kick was even more dangerous, spinning through the air as Brian To’o leaped off one leg to catch it, allowing the chase to get dangerously close, as Jarome Luai came in with an escort on Tevita Pangai Junior, and Jamayne Isaako booted through the first two of the game.
This was a conservative decision, especially against a Penrith outfit that have averaged 28 points per game this year, and the visitors seemed steeled by it, but over time it started to feel more part of a slow but steady consolidation by Brisbane. Crichton took Croft’s next kick on the full, but again the Broncos prevented him making too much headway, while Isaako responded with a late jump to clean up Nathan Cleary’s next effort too. The hosts were going set for set, which in 2021 is a genuine achievement.
Perhaps that’s why Croft wasn’t going for much variety with the last-tackle options, booting it once again to the right edge, where To’o came up with the best Penrith kick return so far, dodging through a couple of tackles to make fifteen metres. Isaako matched the visitors once again, putting his whole body on the line as he slammed to ground to collect a Cleary chip-and-chase that might well have opened up a try under the posts for the Penrith halfback.
The Panthers really started to spread it on the next set, elasticizing with a harbour bridge ball from Luai to Burton out on the left edge, off a miss from Richie Kennar, before Cleary came up with his first really dangerous bomb to the right. Corey Oates put it down, and the mountain men got the first repeat set of the game. All it took was two tackles for Kurt Capewell to receive a cut-put pass from Cleary on the right edge, as Crichton ran the decoy and Oates and Isaako came in for last-ditch ankle taps.
Cleary had a rare miss from a fairly kickable angle, but even so the Panthers had scored off their first real bout of field position – and scored without even needing half a set. Oates belatedly got his ankle tap on the restart, thanks to a bobble from Paul Momirovsi out on the right edge, and the Broncos survived the set. The game now sunk back into one of several set-for-set periods, as Xavier Coates got to his knees to clean up a spiraling Cleary bomb, and Penrith survived an offload from Lodge to Turpin.
For a moment it looked like we might be in for a break in rhythm at the end of this set, as Momirovski came in for a blatant late shot after Dearden got the kick away, and Burton fumbled the high ball, before Crichton managed to regather it as it rolled backwards. Yet the missed penalty seemed to galvanise Brisbane further under the next high ball – another bomb from Croft to the right edge, where Kennar leaped up to tap it back, away from To’o, for Pangai to scoop up and slam past Burton to score.
This sequence also ratified Croft’s decision to target the Brisbane left edge defence with virtually all of his kicking options, restoring the Broncos’ two-point lead as Isaako sent the sideline conversion spinning away from the right post. Lodge, like Haas, had already carried the footy metres, and took the first tackle of the restart as the first quarter came to an end, before Haas made good metres up the middle on play four. Again, Croft targeted To’o, and again Kennar jumped up to knock it back to Pangai.
If the Broncos had scored two straight tries off exactly the same formation they may well have controlled the next quarter, but this time the Panthers managed to regather, before receiving the first six again of the match, off a ruck error from Dearden. Nevertheless, Oates booted it right again, and on this third reprise of the tryscoring sequence the Panthers had entirely congealed, as Too’ caught it on the full, and Burton and Momirovski opened up the fastest Penrith set so far off a pair of big linebreaks.
Still, the Broncos recovered their field position pretty quickly, thanks to a seven tackle set and restart of their own, off a ruck error from Martin, gradually absorbing Penrith’s big surge back into the same set-for-set rhythm that had characterized so much of the game. Pangai made an error at the end of the set, and the Panthers got the third restart in three sets, but there was no doubt the Broncos were holding their own again one of the in-form teams in the comp.
Flegler had made the ruck error in this case, and took out his frustration with working on the ground a few tackles later – the first really messy moment from Brisbane during the last series of plays. The Panthers had scored last time they had a repeat set, so it was critical the Broncos circle the wagons here. Instead, Burton scored on the left as easily as Capewell had on the right, and early in the tackle count too, thanks to a deft short asist from Luai, who had benefited from a beautiful run into the line from Cleary.
This time the defensive misread came from Kennar, who completely turned his right shoulder away from Luai as he shaped to receive the footy from his halfback. Meanwhile, Cleary sailed through the first sideline conversion of the game, and the Panthers recovered their four-point lead just as the Broncos had recovered their two points. The big men took three strong runs to begin the restart, but Cleary opted to kick on the fourth, and didn’t come up with a convincing boot on the next set either.
A forward pass from from Turpin broke the deadlock, and while Yeoh glimpsed a space in the line on tackle four, Haas came in to contain him, as Pangai ended with a spectacular trysaver as the Panthers tried to reprise their previous left-side raid. To’o ducked his head and bumped off three Penrith defenders, as the footy loosened in his grasp, and Pangai finished him off with a steal behind the chalk, collecting it so cleanly and elegantly that this looked more like a slow-mo offload than a one-on-one strip.
This was easily the most flamboyant defence so far from Brisbane, and it translated directly into attack on their next set, when they absorbed the energy of this near-tryscoring formation from To’o to put down their first four. Receiving a short ball from Croft twenty-five metres out, Ethan Bullemor danced over a legs tackle from Tyrone May and pivoted off the left boot to get away from Crichton, leaving nothing but open space as he dove over beside the left post for his first NRL try.
Isaako booted through the extras, and the Broncos had recovered their two point lead, cementing what was already the best game of their 2021 season. Kevvie’s spray before the game had done the trick, and while they wouldn’t score another point from here on, they still did a valiant effort of keeping out Penrith for most of the match, only allowing the mountain men to clock up another eight points in the final five minutes.
Conversely, the Panthers had some of their fastest runs on their next set, clearly unsettled by this unexpected starch from Brisbane, and glimpsed a repeat on the last, when Coates tapped back the high ball and May collected it. Cleary got to a second kick, but Coates was just as strong on the left edge, collecting the Steeden on the full and making forty-five metres past To’o before he was cut down by Crichton. Kennar was almost as good three plays later, with the best Broncos post-contact metres so far.
This was the last big play of the first stanza – apart from a last-second tryscoring opportunity, right on the siren, that might just have iced the game for Brisbane. In the final second, Crichton carried the footy into the defence, but lost it backwards, in a weird nexus between a loose carry, flick pass and late offload. Croft gathered offloaded right on the ground, and David Mead more or less rolled it along the turf, ricocheting it up to Oates, who had ample room to score if he hadn’t knocked it on.
It was a play that somewhat muted the end of this first stanza for Brisbane, but they still returned to the field with a sense of purpose, presumably due to another motivating address from Walters. Croft continued to target To’o with his first kick, and both teams went set for set for a few minutes, until Pangai came up with another superb strip, this time in front of the line, after Crichton secured a Croft bomb on the bounce. It was pretty anticlimactic when Glenn put down a Turpin pass a tackle later.
The Broncos had now stuffed up two brilliant tryscoring opportunities – two tries that might have secured them the win in this low-scoring affair – but they got a third chance when To’o knocked on the footy on the very first play of the next Penrith set. The mountain men were clearly rattled, so Brisbane had to take advantage of that discomfort over the next six tackles – and they made good headway, as Haas almost slammed over beneath the posts and Dearden secured the first dropout of the match.
It all came apart on the second play, as the Broncos went for a premature right sweep, aiming for a flamboyant try but instead feeding it through Isaako back to Capewell. No surprise that Brisbane’s attacking momentum flailed a bit now, since several of their best plays of the year had collapsed into errors from Oates and Glenn right when they should have paid dividends. That said, they got six again when Bullemor was held down by Capewell and Yeoh, and then another when Luai was called offside within the ten.
All the attacking energy of the Broncos was now condensed into a big run and solid display of footwork on the left edge from Croft, who was nevertheless picked up by the biggest pack effort of the night, and dumped over the sideline as he lost control of the Steeden. After helping spearhead that pack, Cleary consolidated with one of his best kicks of the game to the left edge – a low, looming effort that Coates allowed to bounce one time too many before he knocked it on over the sideline.
Cleary got another shot with the boot two tackles later, popping through a penalty goal after John Asiata was put on report for a high one. Despite all the media attention about the supposed arrogance of the current Penrith culture, choosing to take the two here was a genuine gesture of humility and respect, locking up the score at 12-12 with twenty-six minutes left on the clock. Still, with James Fisher-Harris barging into the defence and offloading back to Burton, it felt like the Panthers were almost back.
Lodge mirrored Fish with an offload back to Bullemor on the next set, and the game seemed to subliminally get into a higher gear over the following few minutes, as both teams ran harder and faster, even if the Broncos struggled to open up the tryscoring opportunities they’d glimpsed just before and after the break. To’o came up with another mistake beneath the high ball, but he was speedier this time, taking advantage of a complacent kick chase by leaping to his feet to collect the ball he’d knocked back.
It was impressive that the Panthers hadn’t managed to score again since the twenty-fifth minute – and the Broncos had one of their best defensive sequences on the cusp of the final quarter. First, Turpin dumped Burton on his back, and then Glenn came up with a monster tackle to rattle the footy free from Charlie Staines as he rolled in to help out the forwards early in the tackle count. Yet the Broncos continued to drift away from their earlier structured plays – this time with a first-tackle kick from Isaako.
You could see why Isaako had wanted to channel the adrenalin that was peaking by this point in the game, but it was still the wrong decision – another aborted tryscoring opportunity that gave the Panthers just that little bit more of an advantage. They made more headway on the next Brisbane set, when Cleary helped to rattle the footy free from Lodge on play three, after having gained field position with the biggest and best kick of the night so far – always a strong sign that the mountain men are consolidating.
Luai got a strong offload away on the first play, Fish poked his nose through the line five metres out, and the Panthers congealed around the most sublime sweep of the night a tackle later. Cleary fed it to Crichton, who fended off Mead into a flick pass to Momirovski, who shot it out to Staines in turn. This was a beautiful option from Crichton – volatile and elegant at the same time – but Oates was ready at the end of it all, spearheading a pack effort with Turpin and Isaako to drag Staines over the sideline.
This was arguably the best defence of the night so far from Brisbane, especially given Staines’ capacity for tryscoring on the wing. For a moment it looked like the Panthers might reprise this sweep on the other side of the park at the end of their next set, when Cleary hoisted it high right in front of the posts, Crichton tapped it back, and Fish dribbled it forwards Premier League style, before scooping it up and sending it over to the left side of the field, only for Kennar to catch it on the full and so contain the play.
They went for another left sweep on their next set, but it came apart with Viliame Kikau’s attempted catch-and-pass out to To’o, which went forwards thanks to a big tackle from Coates. Two minutes later, Turpin and Dearden combined to dislodge the footy from Stains’ grasp, setting up one of the last big chances of the night for Brisbane as the last ten arrived. Carrigan drove it under the posts, Dearden glimpsed space on the left, and Croft ended with a chip to the left that Oates knocked over the sideline.
The Panthers were on fire on the next set, as Momirovski barged into Turpin and used the shuddering contact to contour an offload back to Luai, before Cleary came up with a soaring bomb to the left edge that Isaako cleaned up on the full. It was clear Cleary had to do something more than bomb to secure the win at this point, and at the end of the next set he followed Adam Reynolds by becoming the second man to boot through a two-point penalty goal in the NRL, slotting it from outside the Brisbane forty.
Cleary rode the surge of this historic moment all the way to the final Penrith try, as the mountain men got six again on the restart, off a ruck error from Turpin, and then a dropout when Luai ended the set with the perfect kick – a deft chip that seemed destined to go over the sideline, but decelerated just as it reached the left corner, forcing Isaako to bump it into touch at the last moment. Isaako went thirty with the kick, and the Panthers looked set to slow down the play to take them to full time.
Yet this turned out to be a deception play, since Luai took a huge left-foot step, dodged away from the defence, and burst through a pair of low tackles for a no-look pass that put Cleary down beside the first post. Cleary had never looked quite as pumped as he did after this final five minutes – another pivotal moment in his growth and leadership from the halves, and a testament to the subliminal synergy he and Luai have nurtured.
In other words, and despite the Brisbane onslaught (or because of it) the Panthers felt more like grand final contenders here than ever, which should steel them as they prepare to take on the Knights in a week’s time. That said, the Broncos should still hold their heads high, since this will surely come to be seen as a critical match in their long journey back from 2020 – a good motivator for a tough one against Parra in Darwin on Friday night.