The Penrith Panthers of 2021 just keep on making history, coming away with their eleventh straight win for the first of two games at Apex Oval on Sunday afternoon, while providing South Sydney with the death knell for their premiership hopes. While the Bunnies at least put down some points this week, they still suffered their biggest loss to a Penrith outfit who now haven’t lost a regular game since Round 5 last year, with Damien Cook feeling the absence of Cameron Murray’s and Benji not even leaving the bench, so dire was Souths’ defence.
Latrell Mitchell was back after four weeks on the sideline, but in the context of this game that was almost a non-event, so thoroughly did Nathan Cleary run rampant over the Bunnies. He had arguably the best match of his career against the Titans, but somehow exceeded it here, galvanising his team into such a superb state of flow, at their peak, that it’s almost inconceivable they won’t come away with the grand final win this year. Only Turbo is playing at that level currently, but in his brightest moments Cleary seemed to eclipse even his form.
Tom Burgess took the first hit-up, but the Rabbitohs didn’t make too much headway over the first couple of tackles, as three Panthers drove Liam Knight back over the thirty on the third play. Conversely, James Fisher-Harris got the opening offload out to Jarome Luai on tackle three of the first Penrith set, while Latrell responded with a good take under Cleary’s first kick, following with a strong carry that helped set up South Sydney for six again, off a ruck infringement from Kurt Capewell.
Viliame Kikau mirrored Fish with an offload back to Luai on tackle three, and Matt Burton broke into open space, pivoting off the left boot and making thirty metres before shooting a daring twenty-metre pass out to Brian To’o, directly across the chest of Josh Mansour. To’o wisely chose to take the tackle, and like clockwork the Panthers shifted their attention to the right, where Cleary skipped onto the outside of Liam Knight, and backed around to twist and spin through Latrell and Cody Walker.
Even then, Latrell had a second tackle in him, but Cleary withstood this third defensive attempt, breaking away on the ground to get the footy down for a try that created immediate continuity with his sublime performance last week. Sure, his conversion attempt bounced off the upright – he was looking directly into the sun – but this was still a grim opening try for South Sydney to concede, raising the bar for Latrell in his first stint back in the no. 1 jersey.
Latrell got lucky to garner a crowding penalty from Kikau after a pretty good Penrith restart, and then tried to take the footy to the line at the end of a right sweep on tackle three. The Bunnies tried to mimic the Panthers by taking it all the way to the other side of the park, but a Penrith pack cleaned up Dane Gagai like it was a training run, before the mountain men got a penalty of their own off high contact from Tevita Tatola on Stephen Crichton.
Kikau didn’t get the offload right this time, copping a terrific shot from Campbell Graham that forced the second phase play awry, as the footy ended up in Mansour’s hands. Adam Reynolds bombed within the twenty in an attempt to force a Penrith error, but Crichton caught it on the full with no troubles, while Walker followed Knight with some high contact, in this case on Paul Momirovski, who had another carry after an elastic right side expansion on the fourth tackle.
This, in turn, opened up space for the mountain men to sweep back to the other side of the park, where To’o took the tackle for a second time, ducking under Graham to offload back out to Kikau, who jumped over an ankle tap from Su’A to score one of the easiest tries of his career. If Penrith were dazzling last week, they seemed totally unstoppable here, capable of scoring a try at any and every moment at which South Sydney faltered, and reaching ten unanswered points after Cleary added his first kick.
The bend on the ball was spectacular here, more than compensating for the earlier miss – like witnessing a real-time optical illusion, as it curved a parabola away from the posts before sailing over the crossbar at the very last second. Isaah Yeo poked his nose through the line midway through the next set, and then shifted it across for Capewell to break into open space, pivot off the left boot to accelerate up to the left wing, and bump off Johnston for a third Penrith try that Cleary converted to make it sixteen unanswered points.
Souths got a much-needed penalty a set later, when Yeo was pinged for swinging an arm into Mansour’s face. Mark Nicholls followed with a tough fend on Martin, and Damien Cook concluded with a deft grubber that Cleary was forced to clean up in the left corner. He responded with a grubber of his own, sending the dropout short along the ground so that it decelerated by the thirty, and while Bunnies didn’t do much with this short-range attack, they got a repeat set when Burton knocked on late in the count.
They went for a set play out of the scrum, but it ended disastrously – with an overlong pass from Reynolds to the right wing that sailed a full metre in front of Mansour into the small sliver of shade that had crept over that sideline. This was a pretty dire show for two repeat sets, both of them right on the Panthers’ line, although the subsequent Penrith set was possibly their weakest so far, forcing Cleary to simply boot it hard and far on the final tackle to secure his men some field positon.
Reynolds went bomb-for-bomb with a big one to the right corner, but To’o was safe beneath it. For a moment it looked like this might be one of the stronger defensive sets from South Sydney, since the mountain men were bunched up in their own twenty for the first couple of plays, but that all changed with a pair of restarts – off ruck errors from Jai Arrow and Liam Knight – followed by a near-linebreak from Kikau, who would have found open space if not for a last-ditch effort from Jaydn Su’A.
Graham caught Cleary’s next kick on the full, but Reynolds was penalised for the slightest of escorts on Kikau, prompting some strong words from Mansour that got him a pretty stern warning from Grant Atkins. Things got worse for Mansour on the next tackle, when he became the main casualty of the most seamless Penrith try so far – a superb tunnel ball from Cleary to Luai, who produced a two-on-zero for Dubbo junior Burton to smash over on the wing with only the slightest touch from ex-Panther Sauce.
Cleary added another terrific sideline conversion to bring it to 22 points, and the Panthers got an augmented restart when Arrow stormed in for high contact on To’o. Graham tried to stop the flow with a strong tackle on Kikau a minute later, only for the Panthers to get six again, and opt to tap and go – a poor decision, as it turned out, since Matt Eisenhuth lost a Cleary ball right on the South Sydney line, begging the question of why Cleary hadn’t dummied and run, as he surely will next time this play comes up.
Burton got a double on the next Penrith set, leaping up to collect a Cleary kick and gathering the footy into his chest, while Mansour and Graham didn’t lift a foot off the ground to contest it. Cleary converted, the Panthers were 28-0, and the Bunnies looked shell-shocked as the restart got underway, as Cleary collected a Knight offload, and then finished with a spiral torpedo that Johnston collected with a bandage wrapped around his head – a pretty apt image for the whole South Sydney defence by this point.
Latrell made good metres on the next set, palming Martin onto his back for good measure, and yet Walker was bundled into touch on the very next play, while collecting a pass that had been forward to begin with. The Bunnies withstood the next Penrith set, and got a restart at the beginning of their next set, while Sauce finally got some joy by slamming down the first South Sydney try of the afternoon, collecting a wide ball from Latrell and dancing around To’o, who looked back inside at just the wrong moment.
Reyno showed Cleary he’s still the king of the sideline with a terrific curving conversion but the Bunnies didn’t even get halfway through their restart, since Jed Cartwright lost the footy while coming to ground beneath a swathe of Penrith defenders on tackle two. The Panthers had the scrum feed, and got a penalty when Keon Koloamatangi broke too early, so Cleary got the chance to make up for his missed conversion, booting through his first penalty goal to put the scoreline at 6-28 heading to the sheds.
Penrith got a restart early in the first set back, but Latrell caught Cleary’s kick on the full, offloading it back to Walker for an extra ten metres on the opening carry. Still, Reynolds had to boot it from within his own end, while Cook hadn’t enjoyed a single run metre yet, or even an especially fast play-the-ball. Graham followed Latrell with an offload, this time late in the set, and the Bunnies got a penalty when Luai was pinged for an escort, only for Cookie to knock on a Nicholls play-the-ball on tackle two.
This was a pretty dire way for South Sydney to respond to their first penalty since the break, although the Panthers didn’t do much to regain the momentum either, since they appeared to be cruising so far over this second half – so far ahead that they already seemed to be preserving themselves for a pair of easy wins over the Bulldogs and Tigers over the next two weeks. They didn’t even need to defend Reynolds’ next kick, which accelerated over the dead ball line after he slipped just before booting it.
Yeo didn’t have to work hard to almost break through a Nicholls tackle on the next set, while Momirovski somehow upstaged Reynolds with the kick, sending through a casual grubber that Mansour was forced to clean up for the first dropout of this second half. Latrell only kicked it fifteen metres, and nobody contested Burton for it, forcing Sauce into a second unfortunate play – crowding simply to prevent the Penrith no. 4 scoring – as the Panthers continued this leisurely approach by opting to take the penalty kick.
That relaxed approach had given Spencer Leniu some space to make a case for himself in the starting side, and so he had enjoyed a couple of big runs over the last few sets, taking the first hit-up here to energise the Panthers into their next try. It came off another Cleary kick, and another Mansour-Burton contest – th sun defied Sauce when he came into try and collect the Steeden as it bounced a full metre away from him, and then careened back infield at an awkward angle for good measure.
Seizing the moment, Scott Sorensen scooped it up, and for a moment looked set to cross over himself, before making a split-second decision to pop it back to Luai, who lost it, dove on it, and rolled it across to Burton. From there, Burton drew on years of learning footy at this very oval, dodging his way around the defence, and channeling his deep and intuitive knowledge of the field, to put down a hat trick in his home town. Again, Cleary converted, and the Panthers were 6-38 with more than a quarter to go.
They got a restart on the restart off a dangerous tackle from Jed Cartwright, and then an offside penalty from Su’A a second before Johnston intercepted a wide ball from Cleary and charged up field to feed it on to Walker. You had to wonder whether Cleary had already registered the penalty, so risky was this pass, especially since his next pair of passes were more judicious, while he showcased his consummate judgement with a try on the very next set, after a Luai grubber forced another dropout from Mansour.
This was a superb sequence from Cleary, who received the footy at the ten, and slammed into Walker five metres later. He was tough enough to drag the South Sydney five-eighth over the line with him, but fast and mercurial enough to prevent Latrell and Koloamatangi coming in to secure him in the tackle, thanks to a big step off the right boot that tempted Walker into a high shot. He added the conversion, Walker was put on report, and the Panthers seemed utterly invincible as they commenced the restart.
All the Rabbitohs could really rely on, as the final quarter arrived, was an uncharacteristic Penrith error – and they got one on their very next set, when Luai was pinged for an illegal strip. They elasticized impressively on tackle four, thanks to a late offload from Burgess to Knight that produced some space on the left side, before an abrupt shift to the right on the last saw Walker receive the footy from Reynolds for what seemed like a sweep, only to veer back inside and score beside the uprights.
To his credit, this was some of the best footwork of the game from Walker, and while it didn’t compensate for Cleary’s sublime pivot on the last Penrith try, it did suggest that the Bunnies might regain a bit of pride if they could narrow the deficit over these last fifteen minutes, especially when Capewell was put on report for a crusher tackle on Tatola early in the restart. Sure enough, Mitchell found space for Johnston on the wing, and Tatola and Walker came close to repeating Walker’s try on the right.
Yet the Panthers regathered as seamlessly as they had all night, as To’o withstood a superb tackle from Su’A – an object lesson in how to make damaging contact without the slightest chance of compromising the head. The Bunnies seemed charged up by this defensive attitude on the next set, getting a further boost with a quick tap off a hand in the ruck from Capewell, but for the second time Penrith stayed strong on their own line – and Su’A now came in too high to try and trap Burton in goal on the last.
The progression from Su’A’s text book tackle to this dangerous hit encapsulated South Sydney’s fate over the course of this particular game, in which every burst of energy had been immediately contained by the Penrith defence – or else their own hesitation and inconsistency in the face of the Penrith defence. They wouldn’t score another point before the break, conceding even more field position when Cook was called offside midway through their next set.
The Panthers opted to tap and go, and then tapped for a second time when Burgess was penalised for a high hit on the opening tackle. Reynolds and Graham did well to clean up Luai after he received a Cleary pass on the left edge, but nobody could prevent Cleary from running into the line and assisting To’o with a short ball a tackle later. Mansour copped To’o’s boot in the face, and came off for an HIA, while Cleary brought his men to their second half century in three weeks with an effortless conversion from the sideline.
The final Penrith try, on the next set, was just as effortless – so much that it seemed like the team was now scoring automatic tries, congealing to the point that no single player had to expend too much individual effort to bring it all together. Luai collected a no-look pass from Cleary and shifted it across for Burton to break through the line, accelerate up the park, and then compound his hat trick with an assist for Crichton, who scored beneath the posts to set up Cleary for the easiest conversion so far.
Kikau came close to breaking through on the restart, and Martin broke through the line a moment later, but the Panthers finally flagged during these last four minutes – or perhaps they just had nothing to prove. With only the Bulldogs and Tigers to contend with over the next two weeks, it’s scary to think how far they can go with this sense of flow behind them, while the Bunnies will be desperate to put these last two games behind them, and Cook needs run metres desperately, when they host Parra at Stadium Australia on Saturday evening.