The Panthers had won six in a row, averaged about 28 points per game, and only conceded two second-half tries all year when they hosted the Knights at the foot of the mountains on Thursday night. Dylan Edwards was back from a broken hand, and his impact on the game recalled the way Turbo lifted Manly against Gold Coast the week before, scoring the deadlock-breaking try ten minutes out from the end. With the no. 1 restored, Stephen Crichton was freed up to shine in the centres again too.
On the other side of the Steeden, the Knights were one of only three teams who didn’t lose to the Panthers in 2020 – although they didn’t win either, drawing 14-14 in Round 3. They seemed to have taken inspiration from the Broncos tonight, setting the mountain men a genuine challenge that saw them once again only recover their full force in the dying minutes of the game. At times, Newcastle looked they could secure the win – and they well might have if they hadn’t let a few opportunities go begging.
Daniel Saifiti, Mitch Barnett and Conor Watson combined to drag Moses Leota back four metres on the first carry, but Viliame Kikau and James Fisher-Harris compensated with strong metres up the middle, Fish with two separate runs. Edwards took his first high ball back a minute later, and Watson combined with Jayden Brailey for another hefty drive back, this time on Matt Burton. Penrith only got a 34 metre gain on this set, forcing Nathan Cleary to boot it from deep within their own end of the park.
Isaah Yeoh helped restore the balance with an equally big effort on Bradman Best early in the next set, and the Panthers entirely recovered on the following set, when Fish set up Kikau for a half-break that disturbed the defensive line, and Cleary grubbered on the right side of the park for the first try of the night. Capewell and Crichton converged on it, but Crichton got there first, breaking through Best and Brayden Musgrove for his first try since the grand final, keeping Penrith at four once Cleary missed the kick.
Crichton was the only player in the Penrith backline without a try this season, so this sequence felt like another tightening and consolidation from the most efficient and economical team in the competition. Kikau took another massive run on the restart, barging through Kurt Mann for about five post-contact metres, and while Jarome Luai found space on the left edge, Kalyn Ponga was able to defuse his kick pretty cleanly, before taking on Kikau for a Cleary-esque David-and-Goliath tackle.
The Panthers got six again on play one of their next set, and really started to accelerate, as Luai dashed up the park early in the tackle count, and then played around with Cleary and Burton for some rapid sweeps back and forth midway through. They followed with one of their best defensive sets, forcing Ponga to kick from just outside his own forty. While Cleary had to do the same on the next set, he showed just why he’s so prodigious with the boot, sending it further and higher than any kick so far.
Tyson Frizell glimpsed a linebreak on the next set, and the Knights accelerated through a pair of linebreaks on the left edge – from Ponga to Best, and from Best to Musgrove, whose one-handed pick-up cleared up space on the right edge, where only a clutch play from Brian To’o turned a Mann grubber from a try assist into the first dropout. Newcastle focused most of their attention on the left wing, ending with a Blake Green grubber that was deemed to have been played at, getting them another six tackles,
This was the first augmented field position of the night, so it was a big let-off for Penrith when Best lost the footy early in the tackle count, giving the Panthers seven tackles, and their own period of extended field position once they got another restart on play one. Ponga caught Cleary’s next kick on the full, in goal, but not without Kikau becoming the casualty of a second smaller man, with Mann pinged for an escort.
The Panthers had now entirely mirrored and absorbed the energy of Newcastle’s repeat sets, so it was a bit surprising that they couldn’t deliver here. Once again, Mann on Kikau was the defining factor, as the young five-eighth came in for a low tackle just as Viliame was spilling the footy forward, preventing any chance of him regathering it. The whole team regathered on the next set, though, as Luai opened up the left edge as elegantly as Cleary had opened the right, with a perfectly timed short assist to Burton.
This was a terrific deception play from Luai, who held the Steeden so low that he seemed destined to kick, and even when he did pass looked set to target Kikau. Burton did well with the run too, hitting the ball at speed and brushing off Frizell to cross on the left edge, curve around the posts and leap through the air to score right behind the crossbar, setting up Cleary for his first conversion of the game directly in front.
Newcastle seemed a little deflated on their next set, and lost further momentum with a dropped ball from Frizell, who’d had a rough couple of minutes, although Starford To’a helped steady the ship by collecting a late offload from Kikau. To’o took it up a notch with a terrific run off Mann’s next high ball, trampling over Green and slamming Saifiti to ground, while the entire front row responded by converging on Fish on tackle four, before Ponga mirrored To’o with fifteen metres and a much-needed restart.
Edwards was just as good under Green’s next kick, an enormous floating bomb that he nevertheless caught on the full with enough momentum to pass a second later, accelerating the Panthers into a restart of their own early in this set. Both teams seemed on the cusp of a try, and the mountain men may well have got the chocolates here if Luai’s kick hadn’t ricocheted off the defence. Fish was already dominating the run metres, at 110 above Ponga at 76, and spearheaded a big effort on Saifiti now.
Still, this wasn’t enough to break the longest deadlock so far, as both teams searched for the elusive play or fortuitous mistake that would get them the upper hand. At these moments the Panthers often rely on attrition and exhaustion, but the Knights seemed to have found a second wind since the immediate aftermath of Burton’s try. The next Newcastle set said it all, as Mann made his feud with Kikau a trilogy, ducking low to brush off the big man before offloading to Starford To’a out of a last-ditch Luai tackle.
To’a slammed up the right sideline, where he came up with one of the best fends of the year – a massive left-hander that got Edwards in the sternum and sent him rolling along the ground – clearing up space for him to crash over untouched. Ponga converted from the sideline, the Knights narrowed the gap to four, and with nine minutes left on the clock they felt like they could score again before the break, so it was a testament to Penrith’s starch that these would be their last points of the game.
That said, they got six again midway through the restart, and then a terrific run from Frizell, who dragged a pair of defenders five metres up the right edge and almost glimpsed a break in the line. Cleary had the last say though, slamming Ponga to ground on the last tackle after Liam Martin threw him off balance with an ankle tap. Burton collected Cleary’s next bomb on the full, but the Knights held him up, as both teams started to feel the exhaustion, sinking into a fairly error-laden final five minutes.
Penrith defended well on their first set back, holding up a series of big men until they drove Watson back a few metres towards the end of the count, meaning Mann had to kick it within his own thirty. Yet Musgrove leaped high above Edwards for the best take of a high ball all night, putting a pin in the Panthers’ momentum, slowing down the play-the-balls as the big men struggled to make decent metres. Even so, Cleary came up with a strong kick, sitting it up on the left sideline where Ponga only just got to it.
Ponga was considerably defter under the next kick, lying down on the ground in a remarkably casual manner to collect one of biggest bombs of the night as the Penrith kick chase converged on him. This helped calm and steady the Knights, who got six again off a Capewell ruck error, and then further field position off a high shot from Matt Eisenhuth. This was a perfect moment to take this second stanza up into first gear, but instead Staines held up Best, on the last , with one of his best tackles to date.
Now it was the Panthers’ turn to get a restart and penalty, although in the opposite order, as Watson was called offside and Sauaso Sue found himself offside within ten. True to form, Penrith now showed Newcastle how to properly accelerate off a burst of field position, as Burton came up with a monster run up the left, with only Enari Tuala as last line of defence, and Cleary followed with a flamboyant wide ball that Luai caught on the bounce and danced from boot to boot before finally taking the tackle.
The mountain men got a restart, and condensed further with a clutch cut-out ball from Luai to To’o, who stormed his way up the left sideline, stretched out his hand beneath a sea of Newcastle jerseys, and lost the footy into the blue and red maelstrom. Like the Broncos a week before, the Knights were really giving Penrith a run for their money here, holding up another left side play a minute later, when Luai shifted the footy from hand to hand, and was forced to offload back to To’o instead of scoring himself.
Cleary helped shift the play towards the other side of the park without losing any momentum, but the Panthers weren’t quite congealing, as a rapid left sweep ended with a slightly mistimed flick offload from Crichton that bounced over the sideline instead of finding his man in Staines. David Klemmer returned to the park at just the right moment, having made strong run metres in his first stint, and now took a hit-up immediately, steeling his men into another courageous attacking and defending set.
Ponga ended with his second clutchy yet languorous take of a difficult Cleary kick – this time a chip that the star halfback was chasing down as Ponga simply dove onto it, moving as fluidly as if he were swimming, and so entirely defusing the intensity of Cleary’s last-tackle option. The Knights made more headway two sets later, when Mann timed a strip on To’o just as the young winger was shaping to offload. The home crowd clamoured for a penalty but the Panthers refrained from sending it upstairs.
By the time the final quarter arrived, it had been thirty minutes since either team had scored, and forty minutes since the Panthers had scored, bringing back memories of their match on the cusp of lockdown last year, which featured long periods without tries as well. At this exact moment Penrith looked set to score – Cleary shifted out a wide ball to Luai, who barged into the defence, broke through, and found Burton on his inside, for what would have been a certain try if his no. 4 hadn’t fumbled it.
Mann came up with it, and the Panthers saw another four points go begging – as they did at the end of their next set, when Cleary’s high ball landed with the most dangerous bounce all night. Ponga missed it, Musgrove tapped it back, Ponga regathered it, then dropped it, leaving it open for Edwards to scoop it up and offload on the ground to Staines, who crossed over on the right edge. The call was no try, due to a double knock-on, although the Panthers got the advantage after Ponga was called offside.
Cleary clearly wanted to tap and go, but Cleary Sr. instructed him to take the two – and he did, bringing the mountain men to a six point lead with sixteen minutes on the board. For the second time in two weeks, the Panthers took the two as a sign of respect to their opponents, in a stark riposte to the media speculation on their supposedly arrogant team culture. By this point they were well at the top of the ladder, at fourteen competition points to South Sydney’s ten – and Newcastle’s six.
They had yet another near miss on their next set, off one of Cleary’s most enormous kicks of the night – so big that the bounce was almost like a second high ball, careening ten metres backwards on the left wing, where Burton leaped up to snare it with his left hand, and then offloaded inside through To’o for Luai to cross over untouched. Burton’s pass was called forward, but Penrith were too late with the challenge, as the Knights got another letoff, but ended with the shallowest kick of the game, from Green.
Still, it was impressive that the Knights had held on so long, given their disparate positions on the ladder, and given that To’o had over a hundred run metres more than Ponga, at 238 to 130, with Edwards, Crichton and Fish coming in at 161, 146 and 139 respectively. The tipping-point came a moment later, though, when the Knights had a Captain’s Challenge knocked back in which they tried to claim that a Musgrove knock-on was a result of Martin tackling him in the air.
Penrith now made up for the fifty minute delay with one of the fastest tries of their season – straight out of the scrum base, where Yeoh took the feed from Cleary and shifted the footy across to Edwards, who tucked it under his shouder, crouched and pivoted away from a Saifiti tackle, and actually ducked under the big man’s arm, before slamming to ground beside the right post, setting up Cleary for another conversion from right in front. With ten minutes on the clock, the Panthers were ahead again.
Like Turbo in Mudgee, Edwards’ presence had galvanised his men tonight, and while the impact wasn’t quite as dramatic (partly because the Panthers didn’t have nearly as much to recover) this still felt like his definitive comeback game. It was poetic, then, to see him break the deadlock here, and ushered Penrith into a sublime state of flow over the last ten minutes that was reminiscent of their conclusion against Brisbane last week – as well as their proclivity for spectacular late comebacks a few years earlier.
Conversely, the Knights declined, and grew more desperate, until Klemmer was put on report for a dangerous tackle that was bookended by a pair of Mitch Barnett errors. Finally, the Panthers got the left edge try they’d been searching for all night, as Fish hit the line at speed beside the left post, Kenny fed it to Luai, Burton wrapped around for another run, Capewell had another shot at the line, and Kikau caught-and-passed a quick ball from Luai to send To’o somersaulting over the footy for a superb one-handed try.
The Panthers waited fifty minutes for these last two tries, but it was worth the wait – testament to their defence, and their ability to play the long game even when momentarily disarmed by the opposition. With seven under their belt, they’ll be fueled to take on the Sea Eagles at Carrington Park in Bathurst next week, while the Knights, like the Broncos, can also hold their heads high – and they’ll need that motivation and swagger when they take on a Roosters outfit still smarting from their loss to the Storm.