The Panthers were in a curious position when they hosted Sydney at the foot of the mountains on Friday night. After winning every game this season in Rounds 1-12, they’d lost two straight matches with Cleary off the park, and were no longer first on the ladder. For the first fifteen minutes, it looked like the Roosters might parlay this brief slump into a big win, rallying around James Tedesco to put down two unanswered tries that briefly stunned Penrith, as the rain poured down – the first wet weather footy for both teams since the torrential Round 2.
Yet this just provided the impetus for the mountain men to demonstrate that they’re still the best team in the competition – that, overall, they’ve benefited from how Cleary has extended himself in the Origin arena. As soon as the Chooks hit twelve, Penrith commenced one of their trademark comebacks, recalling last year’s final match – the best finals match of 2020 – when the Roosters went from a 10-0 lead to a 28-29 loss. The deficit was much greater here, however – a testament, in part, to how much the Panthers have consolidated in the interim.
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves took the first carry, and then the fourth, and while Dylan Edwards caught Lachlan Lam’s kick and brought it back twenty metres, he coughed it up into a big combined tackle from Angus Crichton and Luke Keary, who came in low to force the footy free. Ninety seconds in, the Chooks had the first scrum, as JWH reached the twenty by tackle two, and Tedesco started a big left sweep on the fourth play. Stephen Crichton collected Lam’s grubber, but he was pulled over the side, from ten metres in, by a huge Roosters pack.
This was a very dominant start from the Tricolours, especially against a Penrith outfit that had conceded only six tries in six games at Penrith in 2021. The visitors gradually built field position, losing some headway when Teddy scooped up a bouncing ball from JWH, and yet it all came together with a freakish final play. Joseph Manu sent a shallow chip to the right side of the park, where Joseph Suaalii leaped above Jarome Luai and Matt Burton to just tap it back into the head of Fletcher Baker, who secured it into his chest and scored under the bar.
Adam Keighran added the extras, and the Roosters were a point per minute before Penrith had touched the footy. Keighran made great metres on tackle two of the restart, Crichton poked his nose through the line a play later, and the visitors seemed destined to consolidate on the left, as Josh Morris took control of the ball, feeding it out to Daniel Tupou but unable to collect the assist back from the Giraffe when Charlie Staines tumbled him to ground. Yet no sooner did the Panthers have their first touch than Api Koroisau left the field for an HIA.
Even so, Penrith looked set to absorb some of the Roosters’ opening momentum, especially when JWH conceded the first restart of the night and made a dangerous tackle in quick succession, so it was pretty deflating for the home crowd when Moses Leota lost the footy a tackle later. Lam chipped it left on the last, and Staines did well to best Tupou, as Edwards contributed a strong run, on only his second hit-up, to help steel Penrith into their first completion. They got there, but stayed in their own end, as Cleary booted it from the forty.
JWH made up for his two errors with eight post-contact metres on the next set, and this time Staines lost Lam’s chip out the back. Edwards was in place, although the Roosters responded with some of their toughest defence so far, starting with a huge hit from Suaalii on Brian To’o. Cleary managed to get an extra ten metres for his kick this time, after looking doomed to finish from the forty again, but there wasn’t any additional gain, since he opted for an underwhelming grubber that Isaac Liu was able to clean up easily just within his own forty.
The Roosters had another aborted consolidaton now, this time on their right edge, where Teddy glanced through the line but slightly mistimed the pass from Suaalii on the wing. To’o was unlucky to cop a penalty for holding back – especially when Keighran followed Baker with another try beneath the right post. No surprise that JWH was the key factor here, muscling his way to the line and feeding a rapid play-the-ball for his hooker to smash through Edwards.
Keighran converted his try, and the Roosters were at twelve unanswered points – the most that Penrith had conceded at home all season, making this their most worrying start to any game this year, fifteen minutes in. It was a testament to the Panthers’ determination, then, these these turned out to be the last points that Sydney City scored, as the mountain men now executed one of their trademark comebacks without even waiting for the second stanza.
The first turning-point came when Manu fumbled the kickoff in goal, becoming the first big casualty of the torrential rain hammering BlueBet Stadium. Cleary capitalised immediately, receiving a deft pass up the middle from Isaah Yeo and then grubbering at speed, on the second tackle, for Crichton to chase down the Steeden and score. Tupou looked like a forward as Crichton accelerated past him, collected the footy in his right hand, and took advantage of the slippery surface, and the stormy conditions, that had defied Manu just a minute earlier.
Cleary added the extras, and the Panthers got stuck into the restart, raring to break through the line with every tackle, as the big men put in some of their staunchest runs so far. The Chooks got the ball back, but Liam Martin surged out of the line to skittle Matt Ikuvalu on play one, paving the way for one of Penrith’s best defensive sets, notwithstanding another huge run from JWH, who was now close to a hundred run metres, and a dangerous kick from Lam that Manu caught on the bounce and grubbered deep in goal, only for To’o to bring it back.
This had seemed as certain a dropout as any this season, so it was incredible enough that Luai had a chance to kick thirty seconds later – and even more incredible that he managed to sit it up right in the Roosters’ right corner, recouping even the most residual field position his men had lost on the back of Lam’s bomb. The Panthers were now in first gear, and only needed to level the score to regain total control of the game. They got a chance on the next set, when all it took was the slightest of Cleary grubbers – almost a dab – to trap Teddy behind the line.
The contrast couldn’t have been starker with To’o’s averted dropout, especially since the Panthers scored their second try here. Play was paused to assess whether Manu needed an HIA after a head clash with Cleary, but he remained on the park as Tedesco sent it off the tee. James Fisher-Harris took the first run, and Liu was put on report for a dangerous tackle, then sent to the bin when Cleary slipped into him a play later. This was bad luck for the Chooks – especially when To’o collected a short ball from Burton to score on the wing a minute after.
Cleary added the extras, but his real achievement came earlier in the left sweep, when he did well in the wet conditions to collect a wide ball from Koroisau and shift it out to Luai for a virtual catch-and-pass to Burton. This was a pretty worrying situation for the Roosters with Taukeiaho in the bin for eight more minutes – and their woes intensified at the end of the set. Ikuvalu missed Cleary’s bomb, Fish scooped the ball up and offloaded to Edwards, and Ikuvalu took out his frustration with a hand in the ruck, setting up Cleary for his first penalty kick.
Taking the kick was an interesting decision for the Panthers – you had to assume they knew how quickly they could coast ahead once they took the lead for the first time, meaning it was paramount, psychologically, that they just secure two on the board now. Ikuvalu got some joy at the end of the next set, when he beat Martin beneath a challenging Cleary kick, but he didn’t manage to come far enough out of the defensive line to prevent a daring pass from Edwards to To’o on play one of the next set. Just three tackles later, Penrith had another try.
They got a near-try first, when Staines crashed over on the right, but it was denied due to an obstruction from Crichton on Lam. In true Penrith fashion, they scored again two plays later, and justified their decision to take the two a few minutes before, when Lam failed to find touch with his penalty kick downfield. Finally, the Panthers were in full flight – and Cleary was in full flight, dancing his way along the defensive line on the second tackle, mesmerising the Roosters before shifting a short ball out for Burton to assist To’o for a double on the wing.
Cleary’s right eye was bloodshot as he added the clutchiest conversion of the season, brushing the Steeden on the inside of the left post, as if relying on the slippery metal to slide it over the crossbar at the last second. After two unanswered Sydney tries, the Panthers had garnered 84% of possession, as Manu finally headed up the tunnel for his HIA, and Taukeiaho returned to the park. Cleary’s next kick was beautiful, booted from the halfway line, and decelerating exactly halfway in goal, as a Penrith pack trapped Ikuvalu for another dropout.
Cleary did the same with his next grubber, showing how silkily he could force dropouts from both short and long range, as Tedesco became the next casualty behind the Sydney City line. Cleary could probably have done it a third time, but he gave Luai a chance instead, shapping to kick before shifting it across to his five-eighth to grubber on the left wing. To’o didn’t quite make it, but Ikuvalu almost seemed to be channelling To’o as he slid along the wet turf to steer the Steeden into touch, before Luai got a double dropout as well, targeting Teddy too.
In two minutes, then, the Penrith halves had both forced repeat sets from Ikuvalu and Tedesco, so this next set had an incredible weight of consolidation behind it, two minutes out from the break. Luai crashed over early in the count, and offloaded back, on his back, through a pack of Roosters defenders. Yet the visitors seemed to have survived Cleary’s kick, only for Nat Butcher to concede one last burst of field position with an egregious high tackle on the Penrith halfback. Once again, the Panthers chose to play it safe, and Cleary added two more.
This was a slightly anticlimactic end to the first half, but even so Penrith were eight ahead after being twelve behind twenty-five minutes ago. Spencer Liu took the first hit after the break, and Tupou did well to collect a floating bomb from Cleary, before Morris drove the footy five metres after contact, and Crichton almost sent Teddy through the line on the left edge. The Roosters were looking to recapitulate their rhythm from the first quarter hour – until Lam misjudged the kick, and sent it too shallow, for Edwards to take cleanly on the full.
Koroisau, Capewell and Cleary combined to drive Taukeiaho back on the next Roosters set, forcing him to fumble the play-the-ball, and yet while Sydney had scored off a scrum at the start of the first half, Penrith’s next set was one of their weakest, thanks in part to a wayward Yeo offload that Koroisau had to scramble for on the penultimate play. Still, they recovered next time they had the ball, as Taukeaiho’s night went from bad to worse, with the big prop now conceding the second and third restart of the ngame, off ruck errors thirty seconds apart.
Taukeiaho’s errors ushered in the last big burst of Penrith tryscoring, starting two tackles later, when Cleary fed a short ball across for Yeo to dummy right, palm off Lam, accelerate through a low tackle from JWH, and score four more, as a swathe of Roosters tumbled on top of them. Cleary had his easiest conversion angle of the night, and assisted himself at the end of the restart, bombing to the left edge, where Burton and Martin converged on Ikuvalu in the air, forcing him to fumble it back for Cleary himself, who scooped it up right on the line.
This was arguably the apex of Cleary’s year – not necessarily his most spectacular play, but his most concise and definitive, cementing him as the Prince of Penrith in his capacity to embody the entire team at the most critical moments. Dummying briefly to the left, he took stock of the situation and twisted into Tedesco, eventually reaching out his hand to score before leaping up for the best Penrith roar since Josh Mansour made it 28 against the Bulldogs in the 2016 finals. Of course, he converted his own try, so it was 34 with half an hour to go.
The rain had entirely stopped by now, and the cold air was seeping down from the mountains as the Panthers got stuck into their second successive restart. Another try here might have turned a dramatic comeback into a torrent of unbridled points, so Tupou did well to collect the high ball in the face of a punishing tackle from Crichton. JWH came off the park, blood on his jersey, after fifty minutes of football against the best team in the competition, while the Roosters got a brief reprieve with their own restart, early in the count, off a Koroisau error.
Yet the Panthers elasticised again midway through their next set, relaxing into one of their most fluid combinations on the last play, when Cleary opted to run the footy into the left edge, feeding it out for Luai to abruptly shift the direction of attack with a wrapround pass for Burton. This looked as certain as any of Penrith’s previous tries, only for Taukeiaho to make up for his poor night in defence with the best trysaver from either side, slamming Burton to ground while managing to hit the turf first, to prevent the Steeden making contact.
Against any other team this might well have been a real rallying-point for the Roosters, but tonight this surge was short-lived, as To’o rattled the footy free from Manu – although the error technically came from Suaalii when he scrambled to clean it up. Again, the Chooks got a chance when Crichton lost the footy on tackle one out of the scrum, but this ended up working to their disadvantage, proving they couldn’t even capitalise on two successive errors – in stark contrast to the pair of tries Penrith scored off Taukeiaho’s two ruck infringements.
To their credit, the Roosters put in a decent set now – from a deft Taukeiaho-Manu offload, to a well-weighted Teddy grubber, to a tough chase from Ikuvalu and Suaalii that trapped To’o just over the try line, forcing the first Sydney City dropout on the cusp of the final quarter. Yet Ikvalu sunk to Taukeiaho’s nadir in this particular game on the first tackle, collecting the kickoff and spinning dizzily to flick a forward pass out to Daniel Suluka-Fifita on debut, before the Roosters got one last shot when Lam forced a second error from Crichton on tackle one.
The Roosters made decent headway on this set but there was nothing flamboyant here – certainly nothing to match Staines leaping half a metre above the Giraffe to collect an Egan Butcher on the full. Even Cleary’s 40/20 attempt was a statement of intent compared to what the Roosters were bringing, while Tedesco’s aborted linebreak on the next set was the very opposite – a gesture of deflation, called back when Sam Verrills was pinged for an obstruction.
Stephen Crichton wasn’t going to be the liability this time around, sliding along the right edge to collect a rare mistimed pass from Cleary, who followed with two more awkward balls – the first in the middle of the park, where Burton was forced to clean it up, and then a mistimed sweep to the right, as Angus Crichton collided into him just when he was shaping to pass. This was the most vulnerable moment for Cleary, and the most vulnerable moment for Penrith.
That just made it all the more remarkable when Staines used the slippery turf to his advantage, treating Cleary’s pass as if it was always meant to slide along the ground, launching himself onto it to score his seventeenth try in as many games. Even though Cleary had been pummelled right at the point of passing, he still had time to dummy as if for a short kick, bringing Tupou off the wing to contain it, so this was Cleary’s victory too – a testament to how efficiently he and his team mates can regather even at his most apparently vulnerable.
That said, Cleary still missed his conversion from the sideline, a mini-setback in such a dominant game, as the rain cascaded once more, and word came back from the sheds that Jake Trbojevic had been ruled out of Origin, putting particular pressure on Martin and Crichton to prove their mettle over the remaining fifteen minutes. Luai gave Cleary a break by taking the kick on the restart, before Cleary reasserted himself with a Captain’s Challenge to aver he had a right to take out Teddy under the high ball, since his eyes never left the footy.
Not only did the replay show a fair contest, but you could see Tedesco knocking on, and Martin taking clean possession, as Cleary’s willingness to back himself turned a twenty-metre Roosters restart into a Penrith scrum ten out from the Sydney City line. Cleary tried to smash over on the first play, Leota followed in his wake, and the Panthers had accelerated again after a brief lull, with Capewell becoming the third player to drive into the right edge of the park, where he got further than Cleary or Leota, forcing a pack of Roosters to hold him up.
Cleary secured Penrith’s seventh dropout of the night with a deft dab beneath the posts, but Teddy did one better with the boot, executing his second beautiful grubber, following his single forced dropout, with a short ball here that he chased down and secured at the ten – a terrific sequel to Valentine Holmes’ kickoff recovery against the Sharkies earlier in the evening. Lam offloaded well to Taukeiaho midway through the next set, and Teddy continued to win this mini-contest by turning Cleary inside out, but Lam never got to a kick on the last.
It felt like an age since the Roosters had led by 12-0 as the final ten minutes of the match arrived. Penrith now started to decelerate, as if setting their sights on their battle of the west against Parra in two weeks’ time, while also taking care not to subject their core of Origin playmakers to any unnecessary risk – especially once Capewell came off the park with an apparent arm injury, giving Izack Tago a short at the second row. Both teams went set for set, and Penrith now seemed content to wait out the clock, casually keeping the Roosters at bay.
Teddy managed to secure another dropout, again off a mid-range grubber, but the set faltered when Keighran mistimed a pass to the right edge. Yeo came off after a massive night in the forward pack, rating 11 points after Fish (at 80) on the VB Hard Earned Index, while the Panthers could afford to become complacent, with Tago and Martin making errors before Cleary infringed the ruck to gift the Roosters a final restart ten seconds out from the siren.
Despite a barnstorming opening from the Roosters, this felt like one of the breeziest and easiest wins by the final minutes – a good motivator for the Panthers as they prepare to take on Parra in two weeks’ time. The Chooks will be looking to dran on their first quarter hour when they meet Melbourne to start Round 16, but for now all eyes will be on Tedesco and Cleary together, in Blues jerseys, as they set out to win the series at Suncorp this weekend.