Nathan Cleary already has an incredible highlight reel, but Sunday’s match against the Titans took his game to a new level, making it hard to deny that he’s the best player in the NRL at the moment, and the best rugby league player in the world. He was all over the park, remorseless in try assists, while also scoring a hat trick of his own, and galvanising the Panthers into such a consummate footy machine that it was impossible to believe, by the final seconds, that they won’t win the grand final this year.
The Titans spent most of the game without points, but did well to put down two converted tries in the final quarter with twelve men on the park, after Herman Ese’ese was sent off for a pretty egregious high shot at the end of the first stanza. That was only four points behind the highest tally against the Panthers this season – Manly, in Round 8 – and a decent showing for a team that were lacking one of their star playmakers in David Fifita, out for two matches after his 79th minute hit on Doueihi.
Moses Leota got things rolling with a tough carry, and James Fisher-Harris continued his momentum, clearing up space for Nathan Cleary to bomb to the right corner, where Brian Kelly caught it pretty casually with a sea of Panthers crowding him in. Anthony Don was even more courageous under Jarome Luai’s first bomb on the other side of the park, leaping directly into the defence to make sure he took it clean.
Kelly broke through the line early in the next set past Fish and Leota, forcing Isaah Yeo to bring him down with a last-ditch ankle tap, and Liam Martin followed suit on the next set, making about ten metres after the break before he shifted it across to Dylan Edwards, who would have scored if Jarrod Wallace hadn’t brought him to ground ten out from the turf. The Panthers got six again off an Esan Marsters ruck error, and lost their way a bit until they received a second restart a metre out from the right post.
Three tackles later, Cleary arced a superb harbour bridge ball out to Brian To’o, who saw there was nothing doing on the wing, and pivoted spectacularly off the left boot to make his way back inside and get the footy down, only for the replay to show that Viliame Kikau had obstructed Kevin Proctor. To’o was just as good under the next high ball, but once again his effort was undercut by excessive Kikau intervention – this time an escorts penalty.
This should have been the consolidation set for Gold Coast, and the first play looked promising, with Kelly almost finding space on the left edge, but the rhythm reversed when Wallace conceded an obstruction on Martin. The Panthers got a restart early in the tackle count, as Luai worked his way across the entire ruck on tackle two, and Kikau came up with another poor play on the last, knocking forward a Cleary chip to give Gold Coast another bout of field position.
Penrith needed a big one-man effort – and they got it when Leota stripped the footy clean from Peachey early in the next tackle count. Yeo bumped off four defenders, and popped a quick pass out to Cleary, who had engineered the whole sequence off a slow play-the-ball, feeding it to Yeo from the left before wrapping around to collect it on the right. From there, he busted through a Tanah Boyd tackle, briefly dummied, and reached his right arm out through Kelly and AJ Brimson to get the Steeden down.
Kikau started compensating for some of his spotty plays with decent metres after contact on the restart, although the Panthers were down to twelve men on the next set when Leota swung his arm into Jamal Fogarty after the kick. Wallace got the next set rolling with an offload back to Brimson, Marsters was at the line by tackle three, and Phillip Sami crossed over on the fourth, rolling the Steeden over the chalk, with Beau Fermor now becoming the obstructor (on Cleary) to hold back a try.
This galvanised the Panthers into their silkiest sequence yet, as Stephen Crichton poked his nose through the line, and popped it across to Edwards, who broke through and sent the footy on to Cleary in turn, who fended off Proctor and came to ground beneath Brimson. Once again, the star halfback orchestrated both sides of the play-the-ball, feeding it quickly to Edwards who shifted it back across for him to cantilever through Fogarty to score his fifth career double before the first quarter had finished.
No surprise that Cleary added the extras as well, reaching 900 career points in his 109th game – the best record since Matt Rogers got there in 101 matches back in 2000. Peachey was now pinged for a crusher tackle midway through the restart, and Tino Fa’asuamalueai conceded a restart with a ruck error. With only twelve men on the park, Penrith now scored back-to-back, as Fish collected a Cleary pass at speed, at an oblique angle, and bumped off big Tino and Peachey on his way to the right post.
As with Cleary’s two tries, Fish reached his hand right out to get the footy down, making this trio of four-points feel that little bit more heroic and hard-won. Cleary added his third straight conversion, and the Titans steeled themselves for another Penrith onslaught on the restart, especially when the mountain men got six again off a botched charge down from Mitch Rein. Leota now only had two minutes left in the bin, but the visitors didn’t even miss him as a Don bobble got them a fresh set on the line.
This was an especially agonising moment for Gold Coast, since Don’s error had come off a near-intercept of Cleary’s first really wobbly pass so far. Even so, the Titans got a big let-off when the other Penrith half came up with a far worse option – a grubber on the first that none of his team mates was prepared to build on. With two successive restarts, off a pair of ruck errors from Yeo, the Titans had to rebuild here, as Leota ran onto the field after only missing out on nine tackles for his duration in the bin.
Instead, the Penrith machine got into first gear again on the very next set, when To’o tapped the high ball back to Edwards, who beat Don and Fogarty to make it all the way to the Gold Coast ten, where he pivoted, bounced off Moeaki Foutaika, and shifted it back inside to To’o’, and then recovered the offload, moving it across to Charlie Staines, who set up Leota to charge over beside the right post to celebrate returning from the bin. This was pure poetry from Edwards, bringing his men to 24 once Cleary converted.
The Panthers got yet another set within the Titans’ twenty when Kikau dove on a loose carry from Marsters, but Brimson read Cleary’s grubber well, getting Gold Coast some much-needed field position – that is, until big Tino lost the footy while trying to offload on the very first play. Cleary came close to breaking through on tackle two, Luai made three left-foot pivots on the third, and Sami got Gold Coast another reversal by intercepting a no-look pass from Crichton just as Penrith looked set for their fifth try.
Crichton and Sami met again four tackles into the next set, but this time Crichton prevailed, withstanding a tackle from the Gold Coast winger as he fumbled the footy on the sideline while avoiding a knock-on, or a boot over the chalk. To’o had been in a sublime state of flow over the last few sets, including a massive run out of the high ball that slammed Rein onto his back, but he got a little too enthusiastic on the next set, swinging an arm into Don to concede a rare Penrith penalty with five minutes to go.
Even here the Titans couldn’t capitalise, as Kelly flicked an offload straight back to Crichton, although To’o returned the favour to Proctor a moment later. By this stage, Gold Coast had to score just to curb the torrent of Penrith points – or for some pride to carry them into next week’s match – but the set ended pretty blandly, with Proctor held up by five defenders as he tried to carry the football over the line, as Herman Ese’ese tried to belatedly add some staunch with an egregious high shot on To’o.
He was sent off the park for his troubles, while the Panthers now showed the Titans how to take advantage of a twelve-man opposition, scoring their fifth try on the very next set, after six again late in the tackle count. It was their simplest and easiest try so far – a brief dummy from Cleary to start a compressed right sweep, a strong run into the line from Crichton, who drew in a sea of defenders, and then a flick pass for Staines to cross over untouched in the corner for a thoroughly relaxed putdown.
Cleary converted to make it 30-0 at the break, and a swathe of Penrith defenders gathered to drive Tino five metres back on the first tackle back. To’o was none the worse for wear after Ese’ese’s shot, propelling straight into Proctor on the first Panthers set, before Brimson was forced to slide a Cleary grubber over the dead ball line for an early Penrith dropout. Yet the Titans got a let-off with a rare mistake from Cleary on the repeat set – an overlong pass to Martin on tackle two.
Gold Coast now had a scrum feed instead of a dropout to defend, but that just riled up the away crowd, who started to chant in the stands as if we were at a Premier League game. Sami wasn’t fazed by it, collecting the next high ball in the face of a strong chase, but the Titans never consolidated, since Fermor put down a Fogarty pass three plays later. Crichton now almost broke through off a set piece out of the scrum, and Koroisau nearly smashed over from dummy half, catching Jaimin Jolliffe not square at marker.
Cleary stepped into the spotlight again on the next play, sending a sublime harbour bridge ball out for Staines to score untouched for the second time this evening. If the Panthers had settled into a superb state of flow, then Nathan Cleary was making a case for himself as the best player in the NRL – the best rugby league player in the world – over this particular match, capping it all over with a perfectly weighted sideline conversion that sailed directly over the middle of the crossbars.
It was a masterclass in football genius, making it even more imperative that the Titans get some points on the board to carry them into next week’s match against the Bulldogs. Jolliffe appeared to have gained some closure on the next set, after his error at marker, by forcing an Edwards knock-on off a Cleary pass, but the Panthers sent it upstairs, and got the result they wanted, with the replay showing that Edwards had recovered the footy before he made contact with the Gold Coast no. 16.
The Panthers had one set left, and Cleary made the most of it, demonstrating his stewardship and game management with an end-over-end bomb to the left corner to give his men time to reset in the wake of Edwards’ almost-error. He busted through a few tackles and glimpsed a linebreak midway through the next set, and opted for a trickier kick this time around – a deft chip to the left, where he chased down Brimson, who caught it on the chalk, to prevent him getting a boot back in the field of play.
Like clockwork, he set up the next try, thanks to a barnstorming run and pass from Fisher-Harris. Martin was the final recipient, taking it over the line to bring the mountain men to 42-0 once Cleary booted through another two. This was a team with no apparent chinks in their armour, a finely tuned footy machine that seemed capable of scoring try after try from every conceivable angle and in every conceivable situation – a worrying situation for Gold Coast with another 25 minutes left on the clock.
Rein was penalised for an illegal strip early in the restart, and the Panthers were inside the Titans’ ten by the third tackle, thanks in part to a big run up the left edge from To’o after an aborted intercept attempt from Don. Still, Proctor came up with the ball at the end of it all, off Cleary’s first poor kick of the match, while the Titans got a piggy-back up field as Matt Eisenhuth stormed in to try and contain the damage with a high hit.
Gold Coast spread it wide midway through the set, aware that they had to elasticize early to have any chance of defying the wall of Penrith defenders, and Don did well to collect Peachey’s high ball, but the mountain men were still waiting to contain him. The Panthers now had 1317 run metres compared to 573 for Gold Coast, who got a chance to add to their tally with a much-needed restart next time they had ball in hand – and once again Don failed to make good under a high ball, this time from Fogarty.
The footy came off his right calf, and while he didn’t knock on, he also didn’t contain it, leaving it open for what looked like it might be a terrific clutch try from Sam McIntyre, who came to ground beneath To’o, twisted his torso around and would have scored with one hand behind his head if Edwards hadn’t stormed in at the death to knock it free. Still, the Titans got another shot at the line when Luai was pinged for an escort on Don – their best tryscoring chance this stanza.
They made the most of it, starting with a pair of charges from the forwards, before Fogarty came up with a surprise grubber on the third with a nightmare bounce, barely lifting above the ground as Edwards tried to contain it on the line. Kelly came in to try and score, and didn’t get a hand to it as the Penrith fullback flicked it back in goal, where Cleary ran in from an offside position as Kelly took possession for a second time, on his back, and followed McIntyre by losing control just as he got it to ground.
Once again, though, Gold Coast got the field position, off the Cleary offside, and consolidated further when Martin was pinged for a hand in the ruck. They had to score off this accumulation of field position, and yet history repeated itself for a third time when Fogarty chipped to the right and Don didn’t manage to collect it cleanly. Sure, he flipped it back to Marsters, who got it across to Jolliffe, but the Penrith defence swarmed in on all sides, before getting six again on tackle one of the next set.
Cleary reached the pinnacle of his game on the next Penrith set, causing havoc for the Gold Coast defence with an offload on the ground to Leota, before returning to his feet, following the passage of play, and collecting the footy for the third time this set to send Kikau over the line for what looked like a certain try – and the most sinuous try of the evening. Instead, the four points were called back due to a fend from Martin on Boyd in backplay, which was considered to be too high for a tryscoring sequence.
Initial contact was with the sternum and chest, so this would have been a non-event if it hadn’t been scrutinized by the Bunker in the buildup to Kikau’s near-try. This was the shift in momentum that Gold Coast needed, and Tino was charged up on the third tackle, carrying a trio of defenders within the Penrith ten, and clearing up space for Fermor to pop over on the left side on the next play. The assist came from Fogarty, who put in a terrific double-pump to garner a clean miss on Fermor from Cleary.
It was a decent effort – the twelfth try conceded by the Panthers this season, with only twelve Gold Coast Titans on the park. Yet Kikau wasn’t going to allow the home team to capitalise too much on his missed try, drawing Burton and To’o into an enormous pack effort to drag Wallace over the sideline on tackle one of the restart. The Panthers got six again on their own first tackle, but play paused as Edwards hit the deck after copping a high one from Jolliffe, who conceded the next Titans penalty in the process.
Jolliffe was put on report, but Wallace made up for the indignity of being dragged over the sideline with a deft one-on-one strip. In the kind of breakout try the Titans had been searching for all night, Fermor repeated his left edge try with a big break up the left sideline here, collecting the footy from Boyd and outpacing Cleary before shifting it across at the thirty to Brimson, who went the rest of the way to score untouched.
Fogarty added the kick, and the Titans were four points behind the highest tally against the Panthers this season – from Manly, in Round 8. Once again, Penrith showcased their pack defence, this time from the outside backs, who combined to drag Tino across the sideline on the restart – but the Titans successfully sent it upstairs to show that big Tino’s hand had already made contact with the ground, turning it into a second effort.
Gold Coast got another bout of field position off a high tackle from Scott Sorensen, who was put on report for his troubles, but even a full set right on the Penrith line wasn’t enough for them to overtake the Sea Eagles’ sixteen points against the competition champions. Fogarty grubbered on play five, and Kikau did well to leap on the footy and clean it up as Brimson was running up at speed for a potential third try, albeit knocking it on in the process to concede another close-range set for Gold Coast.
With To’o leaping up to intercept a harbour bridge ball and knocking it back into Don, the Titans had their biggest accumulation of field position during this back half of the game. A try on the board would have cemented this as a sterling effort, especially with twelve men on the park, but instead Burton cleaned up the kick and brought the footy back over the line – a burst that more or less concluded the Titans’ night, since the Panthers would dominate the run of play over the remaining three and a half minutes.
Not only that, but they had the last word with tryscoring, effectively receiving a repeat set when Brimson lost the footy on play one of the next Gold Coast set. Eisenhuth made four metres after contact, and the game ended in the most poetic and perfect way – with Cleary running deep into the line, after four try assists, and a near fifth assist, looking from side to side before opting for a characteristic David-and-Goliath play, as he bumped off Wallace, and then fended off Peachey to cross over under Fermor.
Even then, he had to fight and fight through a sea of Gold Coast bodies, finally getting the Steeden to ground and rising to a triumphant mob of Penrith players, equally astonished and overjoyed at this incredible epilogue to one of the best football games of his career. He was always going to add the two points, and in these last few minutes it felt unbelievable that the Panthers won’t take home the premiership this year, so fluidly and consummately have they built the ultimate rugby league machine.